Prairie Lights: Lancaster at his best in ‘Edward’ books

newerspoolWhen Craig Lancaster was still working on his first novel, which would eventually bear the title “600 Hours of Edward,” I went to hear him do a reading at Off the Leaf coffee shop.

He was there as part of a writers group, with each of the writers taking a turn to read from his or her work. It was a tough setting. The place was crowded, mostly with teenage girls, and the din of conversation nearly drowned out the readings.

It wasn’t that the other writers weren’t good; they just couldn’t cut through the crowd noise. Then Lancaster started reading from his work in progress. In the passage he chose, the title character has just awakened in the middle of the night, fretting over what is to be his first date, set up through an online dating service.

Edward Stanton, who is 39 in the first book, suddenly begins to worry about what might happen if the woman he is supposed to go out with that night wants to have sex.

Granted, sex sells, and it has a way of making even teenage girls, or maybe particularly teenage girls, stop talking and listen. But it wasn’t just the sex. The scene was flat-out hilarious and grew funnier by the moment.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

As Lancaster read, a circle of silence slowly spread out around him, until, after a few minutes, everybody—or at least those sitting close enough to hear him—was paying close attention. Lancaster’s only problem at that point was remembering when to pause so he could allow the laughter to subside.

It was a hell of a triumph and it must have been powerfully encouraging as he neared the finish line of his first novel.

That was seven years ago and Lancaster has just released his sixth novel. This one is “Edward Unspooled,” which follows the second book in his series, “Edward Adrift.”

We have watched Edward do a lot of growing in these three books, deepening his experiences and expanding the circle of his relationships, never an easy thing for him because of his Asperger’s syndrome. For those new to the series, rest easy: Lancaster does not use Edward’s condition for cheap laughs.

Edward is not really so different from the rest of us, the main distinction being that he always says exactly what is on his mind, regardless of the situation. It is his inability to understand why that should be a problem that so frequently gives rise to the humor.

I have enjoyed all of Lancaster’s books, but the Edward books definitely appeal to me most. Reading this third book in the series, I think I finally understood why that is so.

Simply put, the Edward books invite Lancaster to deploy all his talents, to make use of all his quirks and inclinations, all the wit that rolls out of him unceasingly, as those of us who worked with him at the Billings Gazette know so well.

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In “Edward Unspooled,” most of the narration is delivered in the form of a series of letters that Edward is writing to his unborn child, supplemented by written ripostes from Edward’s wife, Sheila.

There are some familiar devices that I’m far from growing tired of. One is Edward’s habit of drawing on his extensive vocabulary and then pausing to note how much he enjoys certain words. At Sheila’s urging, though, he now expands somewhat beyond simply stating that he likes this or that word.

In the letters to his child he says, almost always parenthetically, things like “superb word,” “a rare quality and a wonderful word,” “beautiful word” or simply “nice!”

And the literal-minded Edward is always interrupting himself to explain to his in utero offspring that there is a lot of tricky stuff he is going to have to learn about the English language. At one point, trying to explain the phrase, “You could tell the wheels were turning,” Edward says:

“This is a common American idiom that means he was thinking about it. Idioms are so prevalent in speech and so potentially confusing that I think you ought to just stay in there as long as you can, kid.”

Here he is explaining another feature of language: “Waiting for the light, I beat the shit out of my steering wheel with my fists. That’s hyperbole. There is no shit in the steering wheel. Just a horn. When it went off, the driver in the car ahead of me showed me his middle finger.”

That’s what I mean about exploiting his inclinations: he takes what would normally be a copy editor’s nerdy preoccupation with linguistic niceties and turns it into comic fodder.

Fans of Edward will be happy to hear that Scott Shamwell, Edward’s old colleague from the Billings Herald-Gleaner (superb newspaper name!) is heavily involved in the proceedings here, as is a certain character from a non-Edward novel that Lancaster wrote a few years back.

The humor is just as good here as in the two previous Edward books, but there is also more emotional depth, and a lot of sorting out of familial difficulties that have been plaguing Edward for years.

After reading “600 Hours of Edward,” the thought never occurred to me that Lancaster might one day write a sequel. Now, after “Edward Unspooled,” it’s hard to imagine that he won’t take at least one more stab at this rich subject matter.

I detected only one false note in this book. Despite Edward’s abiding love of unusual and evocative words, he refers to his own tallywhacker without stopping to note what an exceptionally fine term it is. There is no way Edward would fail to mention that.

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