The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
In addition to having a funny name, Benjamin Benjamin is a guy who can’t let go. At age 39, having been through more wringers than anyone can count, he’s stuck in a crater of lethargy. Not only that, he’s running out of money. Having been a stay-at-home dad until the darkly-hinted-at tragedy that robbed him of dad status and his marriage, he’s not very employable.
He enrolls in a caregiving course at the local Foursquare Church and lands a minimum-wage job caring for Trev, a wheelchair-bound 19-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. As Ben describes him, “A pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination. But I’m not going to ennoble Trev just because he’s looking death in the eye. Really, what choice does he have? We’re all dying, Trev’s just dying faster than most. But I’ve seen faster --- a lot faster.”
"I have driven these roads through Washington, Idaho and Montana many times, and savored Ben’s descriptions of the scenery.... this road trip is one I would not want to miss."
A kind of winsome despair colors the first half of the book, as we are introduced through Ben’s voice to the various characters, their sins and coping mechanisms. Trev’s father, Bob, left him and his mom, Elsa, when Trev was diagnosed at age three, but from time to time he makes ineffectual forays back into his only son’s life, flying into town and showing up with a bucket of fried chicken, only to be rebuffed by Trev. Ben’s friend, Forest, gallantly tries to lift Ben’s flagging spirits and ego, until he has a marital screw-up of his own. Ben sabotages a budding relationship with a sad sack “trapeze artist” by writing her a poem, and strenuously avoids being served divorce papers from his estranged wife, Janet. Ben and Trev pass their time watching the Weather Channel and indulging in rank sex talk about the females they see on TV.
Little by little, in single-page chapters with titles like “Promise,” we are fed flashback snippets of Ben’s earlier family life, and the disaster that has reduced him to his current admittedly pathetic state.
Things pick up when Ben and Trev get Elsa’s permission for a road trip the long way down to Salt Lake City to visit Trev’s dad, who has recently put himself in a wheelchair, due to falling asleep at the wheel and hitting a billboard while on his way to see the Biggest Watermelon in the World. We settle into the weird rhythms of the road, and the careful itinerary Ben and Trev submitted to Elsa quickly goes out the window, due to dummy lights on the dashboard, a snarky runaway girl named Dot, a pregnant girl named Peaches changing tires in a rainstorm while her ex-con husband sits in the car, and a mysterious Skylark tailing them. Havoc is wreaked in Missoula when Ben confronts their pursuer, standing his ground as the car charges him at 20 miles per hour, ending up with bloodied hands and a stiff neck. He then gets arrested for attacking the bouncer who has thrown Peaches’ husband out of a bar.
I have driven these roads through Washington, Idaho and Montana many times, and savored Ben’s descriptions of the scenery. “In the past hour or so, the cramped mountain landscape has gradually unfolded into a sprawl of green grazing lands, peppered with poplar-ringed farmhouses and grain silos, broken on all sides by a relief of knobs and rolling hills.” The adventures of the road trip and his new kooky companions gradually begin to loosen Ben’s attachment to his misery. My empathy for Ben might have been engaged more strongly earlier in the book without the teasing, drawn-out revelation of the disaster. But, in the end, this road trip is one I would not want to miss.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on September 20, 2012
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
- Publication Date: May 7, 2013
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Algonquin Books
- ISBN-10: 1616203153
- ISBN-13: 9781616203153