The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

Most road narratives are pilgrimages that traffic in the bumper-sticker bromide of life’s destination mattering not at all next to its journey. The formula — you begin somewhere, you trek through trials, you finish somewhere else in an altered condition — hijacks most variation outside that bromide. America has more roads than any other land, and the automobile, with the firearm, is an archetypal American item, an emblem of our individualism and ease to freedom, as well as a boast of seemingly boundless terra firma. It’s destined that American novelists will choose the highway as setting for their stories — it provides both the necessary paces through which a protagonist develops and the magpie cast of crackpots for him to play with.
But if you’ve ever driven cross-country you know that Jack Kerouac’s ecstatic vision of the highway sublime was mostly Byronic posturing, that three days on the road is actually an Augean effort in fending off ennui, keeping your eyes from slamming shut, and then keeping yourself from killing your travel mate. There is no clandestine clue to American character waiting off some interstate in the breadbasket — Whitman’s multitudinous America always pulsed deep within. Kerouac might have had a dewy-eyed flirtation with that poet’s secular creed and later with Buddhism, but in its emphasis on sacrifice and redemption, on the highway as christos, On the Road is a thoroughly Christian novel. One wonders if Kerouac ever considered the on-the-road origins of Christianity itself: Saul’s famed conversion “on the road to Damascus,” and the Pauline message that never would have burst from a nook of the Levant if not for Roman roads.

Jonathan Evison’s newest novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, takes to the highway at nearly midpoint. The thirty-nine-year-old narrator, an “unemployable stay-at-home schlub whose wife gives him an allowance,” is abandoned by that wife after a seeming lifetime of inanity and an automobile blunder that cost him the lives of his two young children. His name is Benjamin Benjamin, which rather abruptly puts one in mind of Humbert Humbert, and if there’s one thing you don’t want readers recalling as they hold your unironic novel, it’s the immortal effulgence of Lolita. Feckless and roweled, Benjamin becomes a minimum-wage nurse and takes a job as the in-home caregiver for Trevor, a teenager with muscular dystrophy. They discourse naughtily about the fairer half and watch a numbing amount of the Weather Channel. Benjamin hits on the boy’s saintly mother, passes time playing darts with footling friends at a pub, and tries to avoid his separated wife’s entreaties to sign divorce papers so she can finally be rid of this insufferable cipher.

There are two scenes early on that accent Evison’s large talent and his aptitude for oscillation between sincerity and slapstick. Benjamin arrives at his wife’s parents’ place to wish birthday cheer upon his father-in-law. As the old man sits constructing a scale model of the Brooklyn Bridge, Benjamin dawdles behind him, receiving only one-word answers to his chitchat inquiries. It’s clear that the father-in-law is close to detonating from a toxic mixture of anguish and rage, that he blames Benjamin for unintentionally causing the deaths of his grandchildren, and Evison imparts this gut-punching discomfort not with a twelve-page exegesis on regret or with a fusillade of insults, but with two clipped pages of mostly monosyllabic dialogue that end with “Go home, Ben…Move on.” The scene’s smooth economy might be shown to any young writer who believes that a dozen bedaubed pages are required to convey emotional catastrophe.

Soon after, Trevor’s estranged father, Bob, shows up with the silly hope of reconnecting with the child he discarded. Maladroit and marinated in guilt, Bob drops lunch on the lawn, stutters sentences best left silent, and bumbles through the living room, colliding with furniture and stepping on the cat. His buffoonery provides able comic balance to what is otherwise a heart-searing situation: an unqualified father making an impotent effort at reconciliation. Hitherto demonized as a deadbeat dad, Bob proves now his sad essence: “He seems no more capable of malice than he seems capable of grace. Here is a man that does not make decisions. Decisions make him.” Evison’s wisest sentences refuse to shrink before the general ineptitude of masculinity: “Few spectacles are more conspicuous and ungainly than the masculine figure in crisis.”
Hapless Bob provides occasion for the novel’s road trip: a car accident has saddled him in a wheelchair in Salt Lake City, and it’s Benjamin’s intention to drive Trevor from Washington state to commune and commiserate with him. En route they collect the requisite array of chromatic misfits — a seditious adolescent minx who becomes Trevor’s girlfriend, a pregnant pure-of-heart youngling named Peaches, and her redneck boyfriend, who plans to patent an imbecilic invention — and take part in various comedic shenanigans involving outrageous locals. At jaunt’s end the somewhat unearned transformations occur: Benjamin finds something close to peace and signs the divorce papers, Trevor comes of age via love, their troubled travel companions are reunited with darling family members. In a road narrative it is seldom otherwise: the purpose is to prompt self-understanding, and so the success or failure of the narrative hinges not on those predictable resolutions but on the quality of the self being understood.

A storm of self-pity as well as a poet manqué, Benjamin is often given to sophomoric philosophizing. His pillory begins to look rather like a pedestal: self-loathing for him is the opposite of self-effacing. The manic tenor of much of Benjamin’s character doesn’t correspond with the calamity of his circumstances. If you’ve carelessly caused the death of your kids beneath the wheels of a car there should be such a vacuum of despair within you, such a snuffing out of your vibrancy and purpose, suicide should seem a lot like salvation. But Evison has penned a raucous and tender paean to hope, a charming comedy of the not-well-mannered. Benjamin’s manifold epiphanic moments on the road might appear false enough to emblazon in greeting cards, but he believes in them fervently: “Around every corner is a reason to hope.” True before it’s false, that belief is both the sustaining force and disillusionment of seekers everywhere.

Ultimately, Benjamin evinces no awareness of the need for his own spiritual enlargement, and therein lies the shortcoming of his psyche. Part of what makes Kerouac’s On the Road succeed so beautifully despite its Byronic posing is its genuine search for the sublime, its desire to commune, through language and through landscape, with what Harold Bloom, by way of Hart Crane, dubbed “the visionary company” — those Romantic questers after a daimonic spirituality. Even a Dean Moriarty might not have been able to wake such urgency in Benjamin’s soul — but it would be worth it to see him try.