“I thought perhaps the road would hold some answers for me, but it doesn't,” mulls Edward Stanton in "Edward Adrift," Billings author Craig Lancaster's latest novel and a sequel to his 2010 High Plains Award-winning book, "600 Hours of Edward."
“It's just a bunch of concrete and asphalt connecting one town to another.” And then, in an aside born of a compulsive disorder, Edward adds, “Seven hundred and twenty miles of it stand between me and home.”
Edward Stanton has Asperger's syndrome, a kind of autism that makes those who have it extremely sensitive to external stimuli and sometimes barely capable of relating to others. Edward copes by keeping a journal where he records the daily temperature, precipitation and other facts, the exact mileage driven on trip, or the exact price of gas to the third digit at every stop.
Where "600 Hours" was a coming-of-age novel — Edward lived on his own for the first time while wiggling his way out from under the heavy thumb of an overbearing father — "Edward Adrift," which will be released Tuesday, is a novel of midlife crisis. In "Adrift," Edward, now in his 40s, loses his job and, faced with unraveling routines, a new therapist and a muddied relationship with his mother, takes to the road. Along the way he gets in an accident and a fight, unravels the angst of a teenager, encounters meth dealers, and falls in love.
Having a narrator with a disorder is nothing new, but Lancaster, the night city editor at The Billings Gazette, gives Edward such a rich inner life that it's a pleasure accompanying him for two books.
The best scenes are those in which Edward, dedicated to “just the facts,” a line from his favorite show, "Dragnet," encounters emotion and illogic in others. In one scene, a Bozeman student confronts Edward over his University of Montana sweatshirt and is angered over Edward's odd mannerisms, thinking them confrontational. “You're a real smart-ass, aren't you?” he asks Edward, rhetorically. “No,” says Edward, answering truthfully. “Just smart.”
"Edward Adrift," like its main character, isn't sure where it's going. It swings between being a book about a relationship with an adolescent friend, Kyle Middleton, who's the new kid at a school with bullies, and Edward's romance with Sheila Renfro, the owner of a Colorado motel. And, as he did in "600 Hours," Lancaster wraps up his book too neatly. While I don't begrudge Edward happiness, it's as if the author doesn't trust that his creation can handle serious crises. What's losing a job if you have a $6 million trust, like Edward?
Still, Edward Stanton is one of the more distinct and interesting characters you'll encounter in contemporary fiction, and it's never dull accompanying him. "Edward Adrift," like "600 Hours" before it, is such a well-written, big-hearted book that its pages fly by and will leave its readers no doubt hoping for a trilogy.
Jay Stevens is a freelance writer and political commentator living in Erie, Pa.