Let's not mince words. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin, $24.95) is far and away the best novel Jonathan Evison has ever written. This is information that can't be hidden away in the middle of a review, after 500 words' worth of circumlocution. It's clear, and it's obvious, and it's incredibly happy news, so we need to shout it as loudly as we can.
Bainbridge Island–based Evison has written some good novels. His debut novel, All About Lulu, was previously his best work—Lulu wore its John Irving influence on its sleeve, in a very first-novel sort of way, but it had a lot of heart and very little fear, which is just as a debut should be. His second book, West of Here, was at least something completely different, an epic time-jumping story of a small Washington town. But parts of West felt perfunctory or unfinished, like Evison was stretching beyond the reach of his authorial power. It was a flawed but ambitious book.
But Caregiving is flat-out good, without any qualifiers like "debut novel" or "ambitious." It's funny, moving, and lively, the sort of novel that will appeal to avid readers and to people who only manage to read one or two books in a year. The secret, the trick to the book, is in the voice of the narrator, which feels so true that it simply can't be denied.
Caregiving is the story of Benjamin Benjamin, a schlubby on-the-edge-of-middle-age man with a terrible disaster in his recent past. We quickly learn that he was the father of two children, and at the same time, we learn that his children aren't alive anymore. Exactly how that happened isn't clear—we know it was an accident, and that people who avoid contact with Benjamin certainly seem to think that accident was his fault. Everyone in his small Washington town can see the tragedy on him, glowing like a set of Christmas lights. We know that his wife wants to become his ex-wife, but he won't sign the divorce papers because he thinks he can win her back somehow.
Perhaps because of whatever terrible thing happened, Benjamin, who was a stay-at-home dad, has decided to become a caretaker. "I learned about professionalism," he tells us on the first page. "I learned how to erect and maintain certain boundaries, to keep a certain physical and emotional distance between the client and myself in order to avoid burnout." At 39, he's just starting out again, and so he takes an entry-level job for less than 10 bucks an hour taking care of a young man named Trev who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Benjamin dresses Trev, wipes his ass, drives him around, feeds him, talks about impossible sexual positions, and scopes out girls at the mall with him. Though Benjamin is basically paid to be Trev's best friend, and though Trev is understandably bitter to find himself trapped in his small life and his wheelchair, the two genuinely grow to like each other. Benjamin appreciates the routine of it all:
Doing anything with Trev is slow, no matter how many times we've done it before. There's the matter of the ramp, along with all that buckling and unbuckling, the fact that he's a slow eater, and the fact that he likes to make me wait. But at least we get a good parking spot.
Benjamin's voice is pretty much always like that—caustic, observant, weary, but always with a little flourish of acrid optimism whipping out at the end, a chill-but-sunny side that cracks through, no matter what.
Eventually, we learn more about Benjamin. He drinks a little too much. He's a good friend to Forest, the one person who stood by him after the whatever-it-was took his children away, even though Benjamin's advice to Forest after a momentary infidelity isn't the kind of thing a guilt-racked husband wants to hear. "Sometimes you lie," Benjamin says. "Sometimes it's the right thing to do." He's right, even though he's wrong.
Eventually, Benjamin and Trev go out on a road trip, and they accrue a cast of equally damaged characters to keep them company along the way. I suppose some readers might not enjoy where they end up, or they might find Benjamin's arc to be a little predictable. Those people are missing the point. Nobody grieves in the same way as anyone else, but there are really only a few narrow paths out of grief: You keep the hurt with you and wallow in it, or you ignore it, or you run straight into it and hope there's something on the other side. We stop grieving in the same way. We all have to choose our path, and follow the footprints in front of us. That's what this book is about.