In his third novel, Jonathan Evison takes another look at the ways individuals and families can fracture in modern American life. Evison's debut novel, All About Lulu, plumbed the fraught territory of half-siblings. The bestselling West of Here involved multiple characters and storylines as it moved back and forth between the late 1800s development of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula and its current day legacy of history. Revised Fundamentals once more moves the lens in close.
Ben Benjamin's life has almost fractured out of existence. Having been a stay-at-home dad, he carries the burden of complete responsibility for an accident that resulted in the deaths of his two young children. We learn of this loss early on but it is not until almost the end of the book do we learn how it happened. To make things worse, Ben's wife has left him and he has no marketable skills - a wry twist on the woman who must return to the job market after years as a homemaker. His one set of skills involves taking care of people, though guilt and grief nearly undermine his plans to become a professional caregiver.
Eventually Ben enrolls in a class, which outlines the basics of caregiving - providing rules, procedures, and tips. Ben studies hard and is assigned a patient, 19-year old Trev, who is suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Though Trev falls far outside of the parameters of Ben's training, he is oddly similar in many ways to Ben's lost children and best friend, whom he has been guiding through life for years.
To visit Trev's estranged father, Ben and Trev set off on a road trip that is worthy of Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck. Evison is a master of character development. He does not bother with thin side characters. Trev, his mother, his estranged father, and the folks we meet along the way are rich, full of eccentricities and their own forms of angst, dreams and sorrows. Humor abounds, death hovers, suspense grows, danger threatens, but life keeps bursting out of these people and will not be denied.
This balance of high hilarity and deep despair teeters on a fine edge for pages and pages without let-up. Reading The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is similar to watching a clown do his routine for many hours. I always get the feeling while reading Evison that he is having way too much fun as an author even while he lays on enough hurt and depression to make me consider medication. He is not unlike a young John Irving.
Much of the wonder comes from the details.
Ben, dressing Trev: "I begin to dress him on the bed, beginning with his gold-toed socks. When I've managed to wrestle his cargo pants up around his knees, I hoist him out of bed and prop him on my elevated knee, and with one hand I work the pants the remainder of the way up before nesting him in his wheelchair."
Trev answering his cell phone while seated in his wheelchair: "For leverage, Trev is forced to arch his back and roll his head to one side and lean slightly forward before he can go fishing in his pouch with his inflexible right arm. Once he's got a purchase on the phone, it dangles precariously in his clutches as he raises it to his ear like a human steam shovel."
Descriptions of the tacky roadside attractions visited by Ben and Trev, the cheap motel rooms where they stay and especially any scene involving food or drink, are so vivid you can see, smell, and taste them.
Despite having plenty of heart, the story is almost but not quite heart-warming. Nevertheless the novel is recommended to readers who are not averse to strong language and who find a look at the underside of the 21st century male an interesting proposition. Any reader who has found caring for others difficult or burdensome or even near impossible will find Ben Benjamin's story riveting and hard to put down.
This review was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the May 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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