The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison (2012)
Review by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
( Published in the Sunday Portsmouth Herald, August 11, 2013)
Good advice for all of us in any sort of helping field but for Benjamin Benjamin (called Ben for obvious reasons) it is the mnemonic that guides him as a newly minted caregiver. He has just completed a 28 hour night course called ‘Fundamentals of Caregiving’, which has equipped him to be a para-professional aide in the home. Ben is so broke that he will take any job; he is a father without children, a husband without a wife, in short, a man who thought he had lost everything but finds he still has more to lose. Next stop: living on the street. Ben could use some serious caregiving.
If not for the blazing wit and compassion in The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, the story of the hapless Ben would have been, not only predictable, but melancholy and mournful. In Evison’s hands though, our hero survives by his wits and, along the way, becomes quite a good caregiver, albeit not a traditional one. We love Ben and root for him through every bad decision he makes.
”…who lives on a small farm at the end of a long rutty drive way between Poulsbo and Kingston, [Washington State] where they do something with horses – breed them, sell them, board them. All I really know is, that Trevor is a nineteen-year-old with MS. Or maybe it’s ALS. Something with a wheelchair.”
Ben takes the job seriously at first. He administers his duties with precision, buoys Trevor’s spirits, feeds him, cleans him, talks to him, watches television with him, but that is not to say that the job is satisfying, compelling or exciting.
“Now, four months after the interview, I spend anywhere from forty to sixty hours a week with Trev. We’re way past the awkward toiletry stage. Beyond the honeymoon stage. I’ve been Asking, Listening, Observing, Helping and Asking again for sixteen weeks, a gazillion waffles, eight trips to the shoe store, endless hours of weather-related programming. I passed the burnout stage about three months ago. That’s not to say I don’t like Trev – I do, tyrannical streak and all. I feel for him.”
Clearly, Ben’s heart isn’t in the job. How can it be? His heart is broken. Over time the tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of his children are revealed. His wife wants a divorce. Ben won’t sign the papers, hopelessly hoping that she will take him back. Ben is a very guilty man, whether justified or not, he cannot see beyond himself to know. Ben reveals the story in snippets; the only way he can tell it; the pain is so great. His wounds are fresh and he continues to peel any healing back. He wants to hurt; he wants to carry the grief.
At first caring for Trevor is for financial survival only. Ben’s self-involvement and grief is so extreme that he is unable to really feel for anyone else. He makes many mistakes on the job and at one point, Trevor’s mother, the unflappable Elsa, fires him. Fear not, eventually she hires him back.
Trevor’s got some personal issues of his own. Beyond the debilitating condition which robs him of anything resembling a normal life, his runaway father, Bob, now wants to be a part of his life. Bob walked out when Trev was small, unable to handle the diagnosis. Despite Bob’s misguided attempts to redeem himself, Trev and Elsa will not forgive him, nor cut him a break.
“Elsa steps aside, and Bob enters the foyer. He’s dressed in pale green Dockers and a forgettable dress shirt, and he looks like Al Gore before Al Gore got fat: mild, average, palliative in his dullness. Yet for all this mild-manneredness, there is something distinctly clownish about him. Maybe it’s his short legs and long torso or perhaps his oversized dress shoes. Though I’m predisposed toward not liking Bob (the guy is a deadbeat, after all), I can’t help but sympathize with him – perhaps it’s because we’ve both made such a hopeless mess out of fatherhood, or because we’re both so well acquainted with rejection, or because we both yearn so badly for forgiveness. Or maybe it’s just because his fly is open.”
OK, that’s the premise; time for part two of the book and redemption. Road trip anyone?! Yes, Ben and Trev set out on a road trip to visit Bob. Trev has decided it is time to get to know his father. Ben is hiding from Cockroach, who is attempting to serve him divorce papers, and he is about to be evicted by Chuck, his landlord, for supposedly trying to poison a neighbor’s cat. Good time to get out of Dodge.
Elsa is skeptical.
“What gives you the right to decide what my son needs? I don’t remember any of this in the service plans. Are you a psychologist? A physician/[Ben] “I’m the best friend he’s got”
Thus begins a journey from Washington State to Salt Lake City in a dilapidated but tripped out van. Mission impossible? Maybe. Self-serving? Could be. Well-intentioned? Definitely!The trip is not all fun and games but much more fun than Trev has ever had. An assortment of characters accompanies them at various points on the adventure. A sketchy man is following them in a Skylark, they pick up the hitchhiking, ‘smoking girl’ Dot (“she’s doing everything she can to make herself look ugly, and it’s still not working”), and at the Grand Canyon, the very pregnant Peaches and her lame boyfriend, Elton hop a ride. It’s a full van; it’s a full hotel room. Unpredictable hijinks ensue; the kind that can only happen on a road trip.
Evison has written a hilarious novel.
Beneath the fun, however, is a bittersweet, heartwarming love story. Every character grows. Not to perfection, mind you, but they become the best they can be at that moment in time.
“And while I’m not sure what propels Trev onward, for the first time since we set out on this journey, I know where I’m going, and I wish I could say it were home.”
Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is Jonathan Evison’s third novel. He lives on an island off the coast of Washington State. His first novel, All About Lulu, won the Washington State Book Award. His second novel, West of Here, was a New York Times bestseller.