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When it comes to sad sacks who just haven't gotten over it, whatever it is, few are sadder than Benjamin Benjamin. He doesn't have much, he doesn't want anything new, his days and nights are a blur but not enough of a void. What he wants is what he cannot have, because you can't go into the past and make that awful thing not happen.

Ben, the protagonist of Jonathan Evison's The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, did suffer the worst tragedy a father can. What happened to this former father of two, househusband to a successful veterinarian, is not revealed until toward the end of the novel. It's apparent early on that a tragedy occurred, but the specifics are left to wonder about.

And while the reader is left hanging, there is Ben's current situation. His wife has moved on but he has not. With nothing left to do, or lose, he becomes caregiver to a teenage boy with MS. Trev is too smart to be meekly accepting of his condition and his fate, confined to a wheelchair and increasingly unable to do much of anything for himself. Ben and Trev have the right amount of mutual moroseness and sardonic sensibility to team up when the opportunity presents itself for a road trip. When they hit the road to go see Trev's even more hapless father, their journey is, of course, more than physical.

Although Ben and Trev ostensibly set out to view some of the odd landmarks in the western landscape, they are really out to discover ways in which parents and children can love each other, desperately and regardless of ridicule. The characters they meet are the kind that might draw disdain or even disgust, but Evison shows their full humanity. None are throwaway people, not even the least among them, a convict with a get-rich scheme that Benjamin doesn't have the heart to burst.

This was all evident when I first read the novel. But threatening to overpower this story of healing and family love, even one told in a voice that looks sardonic but is sweet underneath the quipping style, were two problems. The first was structural. Waiting until the novel is nearly over to reveal exactly what happens to Ben's children doesn't bring a big emotional punch to the gut. The event is as bad as intimidated, as bad as a parent's imagination can go. But not revealing it earlier on tends to make Ben pathetic rather than a figure for which to feel empathy and sorrow.

The other problem is perhaps more minor, but it affected my ability to keep my disbelief suspended while reading. And that's crucial to accepting whatever world and characters a writer uses to convey themes and any ideas upholding the story. The novel begins in western Washington state. The road trip Ben and Trev take goes through eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana before dropping down to Wyoming and Utah. For a novel set on the road, there's little sense he knows the places Benjamin and the others drive through. At one point, they stop at the Big Stack in Anaconda, Montana, but it's placed near Great Falls. Those two places are about 180 miles apart, with Helena in between them. Both factually and for sense of the landscape fitting, it was hard to recognize places I've known for more than 50 years. And that's hard for any fiction set in the West. Sense of place, when done right, is a hallmark of great Western fiction. The land matters out here. From Puget Sound to the edge of the Great Plains, we are of the land. It is part of us.

However, writing about this novel has revealed some of its strengths. The way the men in the novel react to what life throws at them demonstrates that the women have more power as they just get on with it. Ben's estranged wife and Trev's mother are capable women who are so wrapped up in carrying on that they have little sympathy for Ben's continuing sorrow, and definitely no pity for anyone feeling sorry for himself. The one woman Ben attempts to date wants nothing to do with a loser who would write poetry for a woman he just met, and she only works as a casino waitress who does a few trapeze tricks as a floor show.

Every woman in the novel, from Ben's little daughter to the pregnant teen he and Trev find on the freeway to the runaway who treats Trev as a regular guy, does not wallow in sorrow, no matter what hurts they have endured. In another writer's hands, these female characters could come across as non-caring or shrewish. They are not. They are strong and they are admired. For a novel about a man who is a father mourning the loss of his children and of his family, there is no damning or blaming a female character. That reflects a far more compassionate view of humanity than that expressed in the works of other, more celebrated male literary authors.

This compassionate sensibility also is expressed in two speeches Ben makes late in the novel that veer toward hokey and "here is the point of my story". But when within the space of two pages, in two different times and places, it is stated that everything will be all right, and it is evident this could be so, the book's weak points don't matter. If those other aspects are what Evison needed to get to those two points, it was worth it.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Nice review (6+ / 0-)

    This is one that I started as a recorded book, and then had to get the book out of the library too so I could continue when I wasn't driving.  Very moving, and yet amusing and somehow life-affirming.

  •  Thanks! (5+ / 0-)

    I agree about getting the places right, though.  That is vital.

    I like the idea of the two going on a road trip.

    The journey to understanding or redemption is always a favorite of mine and I just plain like to get out on the road in a story.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue May 07, 2013 at 07:35:30 PM PDT

  •  “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. . . (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, bookgirl, RiveroftheWest, Sonnet

    A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”                        - D. H. Lawrence

    Just a quote I'm fond of, brought to mind by your second last paragraph. Sadness and anger are both vital emotions. But it's hard to know where to point them, and if you point them wrong, you get stuck there.

    Failing at sense of place. You can slide past a lot of poverty of description, if the author makes no glaring errors. But the West is so moving, it's a shame to attempt it without even trying to capture it.

    So you've lived there for decades, bookgirl. Who has painted the West so true in a book that you could smell the wind in the pages?

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue May 07, 2013 at 09:06:57 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this objective review. I read a book (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Avila, bookgirl, RiveroftheWest

    not too long ago that did the same thing, holding the facts for the finale. It was about a child who was killed and the local DA comes to fear that his kid was the killer. Halfway through the book, I was fed up with the whole damn family, and regretting that I spent any money on it. Was his son the killer? Who the hell cares? Not me, by that point. What could have been a really decent spin on the detective novel ended up just being really annoying.

    I'm trying to think of an example where withholding such important info is a positive for the book but I can't think of one. There's probably a famous one that I'll feel really silly once it's pointed out to me.

    "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

    by citylights on Wed May 08, 2013 at 01:09:30 AM PDT

    •  I think I know what book you mean, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      based on reviews, about the DA. The premise didn't seem plausible enough for me to read it.

      Perhaps the best example that worked is a certain Agatha Christie novel, although I fear that even naming it creates a spoiler.

  •  something new, something wonderful (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, bookgirl

    i'm almost finished reading Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and it may be the best thing i've read this year.  

    i can't even genuinely damn it with faint praise or qualifiers:  one of the best books i've ever read.

    Here’s the story.  In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed – a failed physician – to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister.

    Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.

    i don't know how this first-time novelist pulled together all the tapestries of war, brutality, loss, humanity, grief, love, redemption and even humor, but this is a treasure.

    i don't want to give away anything from the story, but Marra won me over early and completely.

    A man asks, “Wasn’t it Ronald McDonald who told Gorbachev to tear down the wall?”

    A woman hears a spoken snippet of a Bee Gees song (“You can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man”) and utters almost wistfully: “For the longest time I thought it was from the Koran.”

    Many of my favorite lines aren’t publishable here.

    if you can get a copy of this, i don't see any possibility of disappointment, much more than i can say for most, 97% minimum, of the new book lists. ;)
    •  I've been truffling through the undergrowth of (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bookgirl, RiveroftheWest, Avila

      Russian literature. My joyful new discovery is Victor Pelevin, one of the most interesting Russian writers today. He's like Russian folklore, Sci-Fi and pop culture, all put through a post-modernist blender.

      From a New York Times Review:

      Pelevin, an introspective Russian trickster now in his mid-40s, has made his name over the last 20 years by writing queerly unsettling fiction that grafts social and political reality to both Western and Eastern philosophies, binding them with the gauze of science fiction and taping them with literary allusion. Pelevin’s broad preoccupation is the meaning (or increasing lack thereof) of the human condition. His narrower focus is the change that has occurred in Russia since the rise and fall of Gorbachev, among the “generation that was programmed for life in one socio­cultural paradigm but has found itself living in a quite different one.” He has called this group Generation P, for Pepsi, because “once upon a time in Russia there really was a carefree, youthful generation that smiled in joy at the summer, the sea and the sun, and chose Pepsi.” What happens to such a generation when Coke and capitalism invade, and when, after that, authoritarianism returns? “When established connections in the real world collapse,” Pelevin writes, “the same thing happens in the human psyche.”
      Thanks for the Marra tip - I'll check that book out, too.
      And all the best to you.
      Halloo Halloo.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Wed May 08, 2013 at 02:36:07 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Such wonderful news! I hoped this (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Avila

      novel would be as good as you say. Thank you!

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