Review by Colette Bancroft
Times Book Editor
If you just read a plot summary of Jonathan Evison's new novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, you might expect quite a downer: Young husband and father loses kids to terrible accident, sinks into despair and drink, loses wife to divorce, runs out of money, gets a low-wage job taking care of a teenager dying of a wasting disease.
But this book is anything but downbeat. Despite the loss and grief in its soul — and make no mistake, they're there — this is a briskly paced, wryly wise and often laugh-out-loud funny road novel with a heart that is warm without being sentimental.
Evison's last novel, the bestselling West of Here, was a sprawling saga set in the Northwest. The tightly plotted Caregiving begins in Washington state and takes its small cast of characters across the West to Salt Lake City.
Its narrator's sad-sack nature is evident from his name: Benjamin Benjamin. As if that's not unimaginative enough, he's Benjamin Benjamin Jr.
At first glance Ben seems like a typical Gen X slacker, a guy who mooned through college with vague dreams of becoming a poet, working whimsical jobs like painting parade floats and selling scones.
He did make one good move: He married a woman who knew exactly what she wanted to do and helped put her through school. Three years before the novel takes place, Ben and Janet are happily married, she's a veterinary surgeon, and he's discovered his calling — he's reveling in being a stay-at-home dad to their kids, 7-year-old Piper and her toddler brother, Jodi.
We know from the earliest pages of the book that disaster struck, that Ben's world was blown apart — he estimates that he lost 18 months of his life, simply can't remember any of it, because of the trauma of seeing his children die. We know that Janet has left him and is angrily waiting for him to sign the divorce papers. And we know that, at age 39, desperate for a way to support himself, he has taken a night course called Fundamentals of Caregiving: "Consuming liberal quantities of instant coffee, I learned how to insert catheters and avoid liability."
Armed with a caregiver's license, Ben gets a job taking care of 19-year-old Trevor. He spells the young man's no-nonsense mother, Elsa; Trev's father has (apparently) been out of the picture since shortly after the boy was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The genetic condition keeps him in a wheelchair, his muscles progressively wasting and contracting while his mind is as lively and restless as any 20-year-old's. His defense against the knowledge that his life expectancy is maybe 25 is to maintain at all times a smart-ass sense of humor.
Ben and Trev hit it off instantly, although Ben chafes at Trev's devotion to routine: every day, waffles for breakfast followed by hours of watching, in turn, the Weather Channel, the Travel Channel and the Food Network. The highlight of each week is a visit to the mall to ogle girls and make up outlandish sex acts neither of them will either perform: Moroccan Meatball, Pittsburgh Platter, Disappearing Panda.
"Trev's life is subtraction," Ben tells us. "At twenty, he's aging in reverse. It's only a matter of time before he's helpless as an infant once more, and slicing his waffles into thirty-six pieces will no longer be enough. Eventually someone will have to feed him the forkfuls. And yet what choice does he have but to mark time?"
When Trev's bumbling father, Bob, shows up for a visit, Ben learns the family dynamic isn't exactly what he thought. Then Trev tells his mother he and Ben are planning a cross-country road trip — and she promptly fires Ben. The road trip happens anyway, with Ben and Trev setting out in a dilapidated Mazda van to visit Bob in Salt Lake City.
Their plans to visit odd tourist attractions are sidelined when they rescue Dot, a sarcastic teenage runaway, from a sandstorm. Then they come across Peaches, an enormously pregnant young charmer, changing a tire in a rainstorm, and she comes aboard with her boyfriend: "Something about Elton doesn't inspire confidence. Could it be the fact that he'd let his pregnant girlfriend change a tire on the shoulder of an interstate in the rain?" Elton, who claims he has a "fishing injury," thinks he's a real hustler, but no.
Evison alternates chapters about Ben and Trev's increasingly madcap road trip with chapters in which Ben gradually reveals both what he had and how he lost it. It's quite a balancing act in tone between hijinks and heartache, but Evison pulls it off.
He puts both Ben and Trev on the road to redemption, but he doesn't overplay it. Their victories are small ones, but victories nevertheless. As Ben says, "I'm harboring a teenage runaway, a very pregnant unwed mother, and a kid whose heart could give out at any minute. I know I've lost my mind. But I'm not concerned, because it's the first thing I've lost in a long time that actually feels good."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.