Saturday, April 9, 2011

Craig Lancaster Kills the Marlboro Man

My review of Craig Lancaster's new novel, The Summer Son, has been posted over at New West.  The story is set in Billings, Montana and at other oil fields and ranches around the Rocky Mountain West.  At every turn, Lancaster cranks the domestic tension tighter and tighter as a father and son try to repair the cracks in their relationship.  In this novel--as well as his debut, 600 Hours of Edward--the author explodes the myth of the modern Marlboro Man, covering territory previously scouted by writers like Richard Ford, Wallace Stegner and Thomas McGuane.  His fiction takes a swing and connects a roundhouse punch to the hard, weatherbeaten faces of the stoic ranchers and oil riggers of the new-century West--a place which, by their estimation, is full of pansies and snivelers.  The two novels boil down to Old-Ways Men vs. New-Age Men.  Lancaster is essentially doing his best to kill the the Marlboro Man and leave his body behind in the 20th century.  Here's how my review at New West begins:
       Craig Lancaster never met a troubled family he didn’t like—or at least felt he couldn’t mend through dialogue and cathartic scenes of pop psychology in his novels. Conflict between father and son was at the core of his debut, the award-winning 600 Hours of Edward and it’s front and center in his sophomore novel.
       In The Summer Son, Lancaster has sliced open another vein of domestic pain for a more ambitious book. If he’s not quite as successful here as he was with 600 Hours of Edward—a tightly-wound novel with an unforgettable narrator (the titular Edward who has Asperger’s)—then it’s not for lack of trying. The Summer Son is looser and baggier by comparison, but it also feels more intimate. The Billings author has put his heart into telling the story of an embittered relationship between narrator Mitch Quillen and his 71-year-old father, going deep into territory that feels both singularly personal for Lancaster and universally accessible for readers who will identify with what’s at stake here.
       The Summer Son begins in 2007 when Mitch pays a visit to his father after getting a series of cryptic phone calls from the old man. The trip back to his boyhood home in Billings sets in motion a series of flashbacks, which appear with increasing frequency and intensity as the novel progresses. What was once a chummy father-son relationship turned sour at some point in 1979 and Lancaster spends the course of the book peeling away the layers of scabs which have built up on both men in the ensuing twenty-eight years.
       Mitch’s parents divorced when he was three years old. He went to live with his mother in Washington state and spent every other summer with his father, alternating years with his older brother Jerry. In 1979, the boys join Jim Quillen as he moves between jobs exploring for oil in the West. In these scenes set at the end of the Me Decade, there’s plenty of drinking, casual sex, and rabble-rousing in the sagebrush—all of which Lancaster captures in finely-crafted detail.
       The weather in 1979 is not all golden sunlight, however, and it’s bitter memories that come flooding back to the characters in the present day. There’s conflict from Page 1 as Mitch takes a phone call, hears his dad’s voice, and immediately puts up an emotional wall: “I felt my guts coil.” The tension only winches tighter as the pages turn and Lancaster shifts between the past and the present where long-stuffed feelings of resentment are about to become unavoidable for Mitch.
       There are equal amounts of feel good and feel bad in Lancaster’s novels. He puts his characters through some pretty tough wringers—fathers neglecting young sons, adult sons later lashing out at those same fathers, and wives and daughters caught somewhere in the middle ground of not knowing whose side to take.  [Read more...]
While my review of The Summer Son was somewhat mixed, I can tell you I really enjoyed Lancaster's first book.  In 600 Hours of Edward, Lancaster keeps firmer control over plot and character, telling the novel through the distinctive voice of the titular Edward Stanton, a middle-aged single man with Asperger's Syndrome.  The story unfolds over the course of 25 days (or 600 hours, as the numbers-obsessed Edward would have it) and while the plot's action might seem minimal--Edward talks with his therapist, tries internet dating, makes friends with the young boy next door, and has repeated arguments with his father, a county commissioner--there is a lot going on under the surface.

Even the way Lancaster has structured the novel in a series of daily dispatches from Edward's journal is revealing.  By repetition of weather data, sleep/wake cycles, and episode number of Dragnet watched each evening, Lancaster takes advantage of the subtle differences from day to day to show us how Edward progresses through life.  Dragnet, by the way, is Edward's favorite show and he has a library of video-cassettes containing all episodes, which he has watched repeatedly in chronological order over the years, the tape wearing thin in some spots.  It's the perfect symbolic vehicle for Lancaster to use; like Sgt. Joe Friday, Edward Stanton deals with "just the facts."  Here's the start to a typical day in the life of the man-child:
       The sound of a lawn mower jolts me awake. I turn to face the clock, and it reads 7:28. This is an oddity. Every previous day this year, I have awoken at 7:37, 7:38, 7:39 or 7:40. Now, on the 288th day of this year (because it is a leap year), I am awake at 7:28. Further, I am all but certain that I have never awoken at this particular time. I will have to check my data, as I don't like to trust assumptions. I prefer facts.
       I retrieve my notebook from the end table and grab a pen. I record my waking time, and my data is complete.
       At the front door, I bend over and retrieve the Billings Gazette from the front stoop. I can now see the source of my early awakening: The woman across the street, the one who moved in on September 12th (the 256th day of this year, but only because it is a leap year), is mowing her front yard. I have seen her a few times since she moved in, but this is the first time I have seen her mowing her front yard. A boy lives with her, and I assume that he is her son, although I don't like to assume. He looks to be 8 or 9 years old, but I'm not comfortable with such conjecture. If I could find out the boy's birth date, I would know for sure and would feel more comfortable about the situation. There is a big difference between the ages of 8 and 9, and in this case, I just don't know. This frustrates me.
Reading 600 Hours of Edward, I was constantly reminded of Daniel Keyes' novel Flowers For Algernon.  It's an easy comparison to make--both chart the progression (and regression) of a simple soul who tries to breach the frightening world of us "normal" folks.  Edward and Algernon's Charlie are initially mystified by a life that can be lived with variables, but eventually come to see how their puzzle pieces fit into the rest of life's jigsaw.

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There's an inspirational backstory to the writing and publication of 600 Hours of Edward, some of which you can read at this in-depth Q&A.  Briefly: Lancaster wrote the first draft during National Novel Writing Month, self-published the novel, earned some enthusiastic readers, got picked up by a regional publisher (Riverbend Publishing), earned lots more fans, and saw Edward go on to be named a Montana Honor Book in 2009 and a High Plains Best First Book in 2010.  Not bad for a guy who spent 30 days writing a novel in his underwear.

*     *     *

This Just In: 600 Hours of Edward has been chosen as the One Book Billings selection for this spring.  As part of the community-wide reading series, four discussions will be held in several venues in Billings during National Library Week, April 11-16, wrapping up with a talk by Lancaster at the Parmly Billings Library on the 16th.

In other news, Lancaster was recently asked to speak to the Montana Library Association.  As he writes on his blog:
Somehow, when I was recruited for this panel some months ago, I got it into my head that we were to deliver speeches.  Well, no.  We were there to read from our work (which, frankly, is a way better deal anyway).  I was happy to make the switch, and I realized that I could just post the speech and PowerPoint presentation I prepared here at the blog.

Oops.  Oh well, the librarians' loss is our gain.  It's a good speech and begins:
I came to book writing relatively late. Although I’ve been involved with writing and editing as a journalist for nearly a quarter-century, it was just two and a half years ago that I wrote my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward. And while I sometimes retroactively kick myself in the pants for waiting so long to get going, in some ways I’m happy to have a nascent career at a time of such upheaval and rapid change in the business of words and publishing. You see, I have no time to sit around and pine for how it used to be, back when publishers were proliferate, writers were given three or four books to become overnight sensations and a fella could wear an ascot without getting funny looks. I have to figure out how to make it work with conditions as they are, not as I wish them to be.  [Read the whole thing here...]

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