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The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

Before we go any further, I strongly suggest that you listen to Jonathan Evison (also author of the 2011 Catapult Notable Book, West of Here) read an excerpt from The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving – his third novel – from the NPR podcast, The Dinner Party. Then we’ll talk.

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/www_publicradio/tools/media_player/syndicate.php?name=dinnerpartydownload/2012/08/24/dpd_20120824_128&starttime=00:22:10&endtime=00:26:29

Lots of the early reviews for Caregiving seem to use some variation of the word “funny,” but while Johnny E is certainly a witty gentleman, this is by no means a straight-up comic novel. Or, at least, I wouldn’t shelve it in the humor section with the I Could Pee on This and the Sedaris kids. That would be selling it short. It has flashes of farce, perhaps, and a healthy amount of comedic mayhem that made me laugh out loud fifty times, but all in all, it is a tragedy at its heart. Now “heart…” that is something this story definitely has in spades.

Ben Benjamin has lost everything – his home, his job, his wife, his kids, his friends – all stemming from an as-yet-unnamed tragedy involving his two young children. Drifting along, he takes a 28-hour course on caregiving at a local church and gets himself a job taking care of a cantankerous, waffle-eating, sexually frustrated 19-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy named Trev. Everything with Trev is about routine: khaki cargo shorts, black t-shirts, Weather Channel, waffles, video games, a new pair of shoes bought at the mall on the second Thursday of every month. It turns out, taking care of someone else is pretty much just what Ben needs, even though it takes him awhile to come around to fully embrace that conclusion.

According the the Fundamentals of Caregiving, Trev doesn’t need to know what happened to my daughter or my son or why my wife left me or how I lost my house. Or how I contemplated killing myself as recently as last week but didn’t have the guts. My guilt, my self contempt, my aversion to other people’s children, Trev doesn’t need to know about any of them. Trev only needs to know that I am here to serve his needs.

Part of their routine – for whatever reason – becomes the mapping out all of the bizarre roadside attractions across America. Ben buys a huge wall map and they stick pins in all the spots on the landscape that have two-story outhouses, (“double dumpers”) Hitler’s stamp collection, the Virgin Mary in a stump, two-headed farm animals, the World’s Oldest Cured Ham. Another big part of their days is occupied by Trev’s general horniness, partly by being 19, but partly by being a wheelchair-bound “pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination.” Most exchanges go like this – you’d be well-advised to NOT Google any of these:
“So, did you give her a Moroccan Meatball?”
“Nope.”
“Fishhook?”
“Nope.”
“Pasadena Mudslide?”
“Hey now,” I caution. “She’s a classy girl.”
“C’mon,” he persists. “What’d you give her?”
“I really shouldn’t kiss and tell.”
“Disappearing Panda?”
“No condom.”
“Pittsburgh Platter?”
“No coffee table.”
“Change Machine?”
“Only had bills.”
“C’mon, I give up. I know you gave her something.”

“Okay, okay,” I relent. “I gave her a Minivan. I would’ve given her a Snowmobile, but she lives on the bottom floor.”

Trev’s father, Bob, fled the scene when Trev was three – just after he was diagnosed – and has been periodically attempting to reinsert his clumsy, oafish self back into Trev’s life ever since, much to the dismay of Trev’s mother, Elsa. For as tragic as Ben’s life is, Bob’s is comically awful. He consistently shows up unannounced, his fly is perpetually open, he steps on the cat, he spills KFC and mashed potatoes all over himself in the driveway, he keeps a scrap of his own baby blanket in his pocket (that he caresses when he’s nervous.) Yet when he crashes his car into a billboard in the middle of the Utah desert, he unwittingly sets the course of the novel by just being that mythical, elusive father figure for Trev.

After much convincing of Elsa, Ben and Trev set out in the van to visit Bob in his Utah hospital, collecting wayward souls along the way (including a potential girlfriend for Trev), getting thrown in jail, and being pursued by a mysterious Buick Skylark. The roadtrip is a cathartic act for Ben, as by wrangling all these people together and taking care of Trev, he gradually comes around to face the facts of his own shattered life. Every time you want to laugh at the absurdity of (most of) Ben’s circumstances, it all gets tempered by the straight facts – his life is a humongous mess and he can’t seem to break out of the cavernous rut he’s in to move on with it. All along, through the farce of it all, you know that the gradually unfolding backstory to Ben’s life – involving this not-quite-yet ex-wife and a pair of young children who are quite obviously not around any more – is going to reveal itself as insanely tragic, but the allusions to the events that set Ben on his current course come early and often, softening the impact when it ultimately hits. That’s not to say that the tragedy itself isn’t epic – oh, it is, friend – but perhaps by drawing Ben’s story out over the course of the whole narrative, for one, the reader ends up more emotionally invested in Ben, but also that Ben is better able to reach the horizon point in his own life – on his own terms, so to speak – helping him to move forward in a cathartic sense.


In the end, Caregiving is all about that cathartic healing, whether for Ben or his creator. Evison wrote this great short essay on why he wrote this novel that will break your fucking heart: www.revisedfundamentals.com/author-essay.html.  (It kills me every time I read it, honestly.)

This book represents nothing less than an emotional catharsis for its author. I wrote this book because I needed to. This novel is about the imperative of getting in that van, because you have no choice but to push yourself and drive on, and keep driving in the face of life’s terrible surprises. It’s about the people and the things you gather along that rough road back to humanity.

Once Ben finally decides to get in that van, it’s that driving force of having no other choice that keeps him moving, knowing that he has to see his trip through to the end if he’s ever going to be able to move forward in life. The pervasive sadness in him is so visceral, so very close to the surface, that you are left with the same ache in your heart that he feels by the end of his tale. But having heartache and living with it is a very different thing than succumbing to the heartache – and therein lies the core of Ben’s journey, for he is a far healthier (if still somewhat broken) man when his trip concludes than he was when it first began. Perfecting that balance between this story of a shattered, grieving man and a comic farce/road trip/buddy novel is what Evison tasked himself with. And, man, did he pull it together into a fantastic novel.  

I often talk on this blog about how there often seems to be a perfect time and place for the books we read – at least in how they affect us differently at different times in our lives. Sometimes we’re just not ready to hear a certain type of story, depending on the circumstances of our own lives. Other times, a book comes along in just the right way for you so that it hits in a much more personal and powerful way. The latter seems to be the case with me and Caregiving, although I’ve struggled with the exact reasons why that might be. I actually read this book back in June – three full months before this writing – and have just now come around to be able to get my thoughts out on it. I’ve read all or parts of 19 other books since then, but I never stopped thinking about Ben Benjamin. When some of those early reviews started coming out, I started to wonder about my own reading of Caregiving, as I found it to be far more sobering – as a whole piece – than other readers seemed to think. Which is not to say, again, that it didn’t made me laugh a whole hell of a lot, but it just touched something else in me that moved my general feelings about it in a different direction. 

Well, regardless of how you find yourself reading The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving – whether you read it as straight comic farce or find yourself bawling over it – it is a testament to Evison’s strengths as a writer that he can put so much of his own personal history and emotion into a book like this and still have it seem as if it was almost written with you in mind. And for that, I thank him.

*As further proof of the author’s dire seriousness at all times, please enjoy this Jonathan Evison training video:

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2 comments on “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

  1. Greg Zimmerman
    September 17, 2012

    Excellent point about it not being a straight comic novel – parts are, indeed, heartbreaking. Ben Ben has stuck with me, too – and you're right, no matter what you're reading it for (emotion or the funny), it's a fantastic novel.

  2. Richard Holmes
    December 11, 2012

    Comedy and “heart-wrenching” emotion aside, this book looks like it can fit as recommended reading in a medical assistant training online course; students will definitely pick up a lot about their craft from this.

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