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.
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||11:30 AM||Political Book Club||Susan from 29|
|Mon||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29, michelewln|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUES||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|Thu (third each month - on hiatus)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|Fri||6:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|