Who among us wouldnt like to put the car in reverse, hurtling back past some long-vanished stretch where we somehow swerved from the road, forever changing lifes scenery?
Benjamin Benjamin, the 39-year-old narrator of Jonathan Evisons new novel, knows the feeling. As The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving opens, Ben has endured two rocky years reliving an accident which may have been his fault that killed his kids, ended his marriage, cost him his house and left him contemplating suicide.
Much of the humor and heart in Evisons story arrive courtesy of the low-paying job that saves Ben returning to the workplace after a decade as a stay-at-home dad from himself. Having taken a night course on rudimentary caregiving, he lands an assignment attending 19-year-old Trevor Conklin, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Trev may not see twenty-five, Ben tells us of his wheelchair-bound charge, whose rigid and contorted limbs remind Ben of a pretzel. At twenty, hes aging in reverse, Ben continues. Its only a matter of time before hes helpless as an infant once more, and slicing his waffles into thirty-six pieces will no longer be enough.
And yet, Ben asks, what choice does he have but to mark the time?
Good question, one applicable to Ben and the first third of the novel, which chronicles our heros fogbound life of false starts and blind alleys, involving broad characters and thin subplots. Like Bens car, which stalls at every intersection, this early portion of Caregiving seems stuck, unable to shift into drive. Then Ben and Trev hit the road, and the story takes off.
The ostensible reason for their trek across the Pacific Northwest is a visit to Trevs cartoonish dad, one of several men in the book who counterpoint Bens reflections on being a father. But like all road novels, the real point of this excellent adventure is the trip itself. Before our duo reach the end of the trail, theyll be a foursome, joined by a teenage runaway and a pregnant young woman.
While Caregiving often pulls toward farce, Evison is too kind to be cruel, and even his least likable characters benefit from his warmhearted generosity. His sharp humor ensures that when the story drifts too far the other way, resembling a greeting card, a few quick wisecracks often restore tonal balance.
As Ben and Trev continue their oft-delayed, endlessly diverted voyage an obvious metaphor for Bens journey of self-discovery Ben frequently turns to his past and a road trip where the destination was the Grand Canyon and his three fellow travelers were his pregnant wife, young daughter and future son.
That dialogue between past and present, played out against the backdrop of an American West that embodies all our blue-sky hopes and the ways theyve been tarnished, recalls the similar conversation in Evisons sprawling West of Here, in which the Olympic Peninsulas bright-eyed pioneers share a crowded stage with their worn-down descendants. Ben comes to realize thats no excuse for spending ones life looking through the rearview mirror, living in the past rather than focusing on those sharing the open road ahead.
Mike Fischer reviewed this book for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.