Book Review: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
Benjamin Benjamin Jr. is a certified caregiver, having completed a night-school course offered at a church and mastering essentials like setting professionals boundaries, avoiding burnout, and memorizing helpful mnemonics such as ALOHA (Ask – Listen – Observe – Help – Ask again). How very much Ben defines himself by his ability to provide care is central to this sad yet funny book.
When we first meet Ben, he is heading out on a job interview for the first time in a very, very long time. On the brink of middle age, he is tapped out, having used up every penny of his savings and with no other option if he wants to make rent on the impersonal, grungy “compartment” in which he resides. As we soon discover, Ben’s life has not always been such a wreck. Until just a few short years earlier, he seemed to have a golden life, true happiness, and everything a man could want — until disaster ripped his life apart and left him empty and hopeless. At the end of his rope, Ben is hired to care for Trevor, a 19-year-old wheelchair-bound muscular dystrophy patient, for whom Trevor provides companionship as well as the day-to-day physical care necessitated by Trevor’s degenerating condition.
Ben is clearly a natural at caregiving. Bodily functions don’t faze him; he cleans Trevor, applies his deodorant, dresses him, and maneuvers him in and out of his chair. Despite his commitment to his so-called professional boundaries, Ben has to constantly remind himself not to push Trevor past his comfort zone, not to goad him to break out of routine and try something new. Eventually, the two head out on a somewhat ill-conceived road trip to visit Trevor’s estranged, accident-prone father in Utah. Along the road, the two are joined by a variety of waifs and strays, all lost in some way and in need of care. Ben becomes a de facto protector and shepherd for his odd assortment of travel companions, as they drive through the American West past landscapes and attractions such as the world’s largest pit and other weird roadside highlights.
As the book progresses, the details of the horrible loss in Ben’s past slowly emerge. It’s no wonder the man is a mess. His grief is unending, his self-blame immense. He believes himself responsible for the destruction that occurred, and cannot see himself as deserving of happiness. Through his caregiving role and his developing relationship with Trevor, a glimmer of light emerges. Ben will never forget the past or stop hurting over his incomprehensible losses, but he can begin to trust himself once more. By book’s end, we see that Ben is perhaps not a totally lost cause after all, and although it will be long, his road to recovery and redemption is within his view, if not yet quite within his grasp.
I hesitate to say any more about the plot, as I believe the emotional impact would be lessened by knowing too much in advance. I found The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving an affecting story, sad yet with moments of lightness and humor. The writer’s deft skills give sharp focus to the speech, physical traits, and personality quirks of the various secondary characters whose lives intersect with Ben’s, and Ben’s cynicism and bruised soul make him an interesting lens through which we readers can peek into his world.
I did find some awkward phrasings (“And what was I thinking in that instant just before the world went icy black, as I strode toward the front door irritably beneath my mountain of groceries?”) and odd word choices (Trevor diverted — not averted — his gaze), and a weird interlude related to Facebook that just didn’t ring true to life. These are relatively minor quibbles, however. Overall, I found Ben’s voice convincing, and the plot was a touching portrayal of a man’s journey from tragedy towards the first tiny specks of the possibility of finding meaning in life again.