“What kind of world is it,” asks Benjamin Benjamin, “where you write a poem for a girl and she holds it against you?” The whimsically named hero of The Revised Fundamentals Of Caregiving—a tragicomic novel by West Of Here Jonathan Evison—is a 39-year-old slacker who settled into the marginally socially acceptable role of stay-at-home dad before the breakup of his marriage turned him into an unemployed, possibly unemployable bachelor on the brink of middle age. Guilt-stricken, self-pitying, and self-loathing, Benjamin is like his namesake from The Graduate, without the family fortune or the youth and cultural zeitgeist necessary to make his alienation seem fashionable or romantic. His alienation can sometimes make him seem practically autistic, and that isn’t always easy to separate from unconscious self-destructive tendencies: The “poem” is a brief declaration of adoration that he’s shoved under the door of a woman who does a trapeze act in a casino. They’ve just enjoyed a single, weird blind date that ended on a note just encouraging enough to justify the effort it takes to sabotage it.
With no better career prospects, Benjamin takes a course to become a freelance caregiver, and takes a job as minder to Trev, an engagingly smart-mouthed 19-year-old in the advanced stages of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The two of them while away the hours constructing a map of unlikely tourist destinations, dotted with pins: “Muffler Men are red, museums are blue, dead celebrity parts are black, and everything else is green.” Benjamin, whose whole existence has become the next best thing to theoretical, doesn’t take the map too seriously, but Trev gets it into his head that the two of them will someday load up his wheelchair and hit the highway, so he can get in one great ironic road trip with the time left to him. When the road trip comes, it’s a doozy, though the first 130 pages, much of it devoted to establishing the details of Benjamin’s sorry life and hinting at the family tragedy that sent him off the rails (and that links him to a whole string of fathers desperately trying to redeem themselves in the eyes of the children they’ve failed), is all setup. When The Revised Fundamentals Of Caregiving is made into a movie, with Christopher Mintz-Plasse bucking for a Best Supporting Actor nomination as Trev, the first half of the book will amount to maybe 20 minutes of screen time.
That’s kind of a shame, because the tone Evison achieves is remarkable enough to justify the slow buildup. Benjamin is the kind of intelligent loser who’s easy to relate to, but Evison demands respect for the character’s unhappiness without any special pleading on his behalf: There’s no pretense that his inability to function in society makes him superior to it. He’s not meant to be superior to the people who are fed up with him, either. First and foremost in that department is his estranged wife, who waited a long time for him to pull himself together before giving up on their marriage, and has now waited a long time for him to do his part to finalize their divorce. (“I’m tired of feeling like a heartless bitch,” she tells him, “just because I need to move on.”) Benjamin’s only way of coping with her need to move on is to stalk her on Facebook and apprise the man he deduces, from her tagging pattern, she’s become interested in: “He’s verging on handsome, I guess, in a beady-eyed way.”
If there’s anything bothersome about Revised Fundamentals, it’s the way Evison handles that tragedy in Benjamin’s recent past. From the hints he drops, it’s easy to guess at the rough outlines, though when he finally spells out the details, exactly what happens remains a little vague. That might be an attempt to convey how Benjamin experiences it, or it may be a way of skirting just how much the hero is really to blame. In any case, the event may lay more tragic weight on the book than it can support. Evison’s comic touch is surer than his melodramatic instincts, but he can be funny like nobody else, about things few other writers would risk laughing about.