"Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”
Author: Jonathan Evison
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Price: $14.95 (Paper)
Algonquin Books has published the paperback of “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” with an unusual amount of fanfare and they are right. This is a special, unusual novel and is in its way a literary high-risk adventure.
The protagonist, 40 years old at the novel’s opening, is a mess. His name is Benjamin Benjamin, which reminds the reader of the narrator of Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Humbert Humbert. Benjamin had lost his job in the great recession and had become a stay-at-home dad to his daughter and son, both of whom he loved deeply. We soon realize that they are both dead. Benjamin feels unbearable guilt but it is only slowly, over the course of the narrative, that we will learn what happened.
His wife, Janet, a veterinarian, has left him and he is absolutely not over that, refusing to sign the divorce papers and allow her to “move on,” even though he is stalked by a process server. Benjamin drinks too much and is dead broke.
There is very little in his life that provides joy but he does play on a local softball team with his best friend Forest. When his buddy is running the base paths, “with a head full of steam and two bad knees, his spare tire heaving violently beneath his snug jersey…. ‘Run Forest, run!’ We yell from the dugout. It never gets old.”
Ben will take a short, 28-hour course in caregiving, nights, in the steaming basement of the Abundant Life Foursquare Church, where he learns “how to insert catheters and avoid liability.”
The job he lands, at nine dollars an hour, is with a 19-year-old young man, Trevor, who has increasingly severe Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Trev is in an electric wheelchair, helpless, angry, bitter, slowly curling up on himself physically and emotionally. He longs, in a totally understandable way, for contact with a female. Ben calls him “a pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination.”
Muscular dystrophy, I suggest, is as dangerous a topic for a writer as the Holocaust or explaining the details of rape, but Evison goes there anyway, and in a fairly short time “Revised Fundamentals,” through the alchemy of fiction, becomes not a tragedy or a sentimental, fictional version of the agony memoir, but a kind of painful comedy. A lot of commentators have written about “Revised Fundamentals” and the adjectives are almost always paired.
Heartbreaking and jaunty. Unlikely and funny. Bittersweet and moving. Funny and humane.
These two lost ones become bonded, buddies in a way, but with Benjamin always, of necessity, the big brother or father figure. The buddy novel becomes a road trip as they drive in an unreliable van with handicapped hoist from near Seattle, across Washington State and Idaho into Montana and finally down to Salt Lake City before returning home.
The road trip is also a kind of silent homage to Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Humbert Humbert and his nymphet tour the American west, from motel to motel, hundreds of them. Nabokov was fascinated by motels, loved the privacy, thought they were quintessentially American. Ben and Trevor, who have very little money, stay in awful places, those few “motor courts” still open in the twenty-first century, usually on the “scrubby outskirts” of towns, decorated in “early fleabag.” And they are followed, as Humbert Humbert and Lolita were, for hundreds of miles, by a mysterious car, in this case an old Buick Skylark.
They are travelling to unite with Trev’s hapless, essentially useless father, Bob, and along the way they pick up Dot, a much-pierced waif, who has fled from her own clueless stepfather after her mother died. Catastrophe may sometimes bring people together, but just as often the relationship cannot bear the strain.
Ben is the childless father escorting fatherless children on the quest for a reunion he himself can never have.
As Benjamin tells the story of their adventure, simultaneously unpeeling the layers of his own catastrophe, he has some hard-won advice for the reader regarding smugness, or even reasonable confidence.
“Listen to me; everything you think you know, every relationship you’ve ever taken for granted, every plan or possibility you’ve ever hatched, every conceit or endeavor you’ve ever concocted, can be stripped from you in an instant. Sooner or later, it WILL happen. So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust….”
Benjamin has been beaten to dust but he will, by novel’s end, make a return to the living.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”