Thursday, September 20, 2012

Not Your Average Road Trip Novel: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
By Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books
Guest Review by Brian Seemann

It should come as little surprise that the front cover of Jonathan Evison’s latest novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, displays a blurb from Stewart O’Nan—an adept storyteller with the ability to span the range of human emotions within a short amount of space.  His latest novel, The Odds: A Love Story, covers a dissolving marriage, and in the process, he infuses the tension between husband and wife with several moments of lightheartedness.  Nothing ever comes off as laugh-out-loud humor, but in the midst of all the talk of divorce and bankruptcy, O’Nan reveals to the reader that even in such stressful situations, the human mind (and body) is still capable of eliciting delight; no situation is without a moment of possible levity.

Such is the case in Evison’s novel.  Faced with a divorce, a tragedy concerning his children, deep depression, and an inability to secure solid employment, Benjamin Benjamin wouldn’t come off as the most striking character, but Evison tasks the reader to accept him, and such a charge is easily carried out.  Through Benjamin’s voice alone, readers will fall for Evison’s first-person narrator.  He’s funny, sensitive, perhaps a bit dodgy but ultimately an immediately lovable character.  His story leads him on a road trip of discovery, and although such a plot device has been done to death, Evison manages to breathe new life into it, and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is everything a literate reader demands of a novel, not to mention an absolute joy to read.

After completing coursework to become a caregiver, Benjamin gets his first job working with Trevor, a nineteen-year-old stricken by Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  Evison spends the first half of the novel building up the relationship between the two, constantly providing a good dose of humor to offset the adjusting both must make.  Here, some of the moments are indeed laugh-out-loud, particularly the conversations Trevor and Benjamin share when admiring the opposite sex.  To some it may come off as sophomoric, and in fact, that’s exactly what it is; however, the two share a stunted sense of adulthood.  They each have their impediments, and rather than wallow, they grow with one another.  Such moments might not be far off from scenes found in Judd Apatow films (Superbad, Knocked Up), but like some of those film moments, Evison imbues his scenes with heart.  The best comedies are always touched by drama, and throughout The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, readers are treated to momentary flashbacks showing Benjamin as a family man, a husband, a father.  Evison brilliantly allows only so much information to creep into these scenes so that readers are never completely aware of what’s happened in the past.  A disaster breaks the family apart, but for a large part of the novel, the details are unclear.  The importance of the past comes in how Benjamin chooses to respond to it as he works and grows with Trevor. 

The latter half of the novel concerns Trevor and Benjamin’s trip to see Trevor’s estranged father, Bob.  Along the way, road-weary travelers, including a teen runaway—Dot—and young, pregnant mother—Peaches—join the adventure.  As this makeshift family forms around Benjamin, he slowly grows into a responsible family man himself, one he might not have been prepared to become during his first marriage. 

A lone brown Skylark starts to follow the merry band of travelers, and given the protagonist’s double name, some readers will recognize the parallels to Lolita, but such allusions are easy to accept and move past, but perhaps some readers will scoff at the zany levels Evison reaches as Benjamin and his group near their final destination.  Fortunately, such cartoon-levels of action are kept to a minimum, and Evison rebounds magnificently as Trevor and Benjamin arrive at Bob’s house for the resolution and salvation they sought from the start of their expedition.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is a mostly festive, entertaining novel that hides its emotional core beneath a coat of hijinks and ribaldry.  With this, his third book, Evison seems to be following O’Nan’s path.  Both are serious storytellers with the capacity for creating sympathetic, truthful characters readers want to follow.  In Benjamin Benjamin, Evison has created a character lively in voice and optimism (for the most part) who seeks the answers to difficult questions, and while nothing easy comes his way, the journey is well worth the effort, for both him and readers in this dynamic, significant novel.

Brian Seemann is a writer, teacher, and bookseller whose most recent fiction can be found in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters.

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