THERE AREN'T A LOT of mothers in The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Like an alternate-universe Bounty commercial, men do the caretaking in Jonathan Evison's new novel; most of the mothers are working or dead. Evison doesn't attach any particular value judgment to this reversal of traditional caregiving roles—sure, some of these fathers tend toward the mustard-stained and fly-unzipped, but they do their best; moreover, they're saddled with the burden of responsibility if anything happens to those under their care.
When the novel opens, first-person narrator Benjamin is beginning to emerge from the several years of heavy drinking and suicidal impulses that followed the accidental deaths of his two children. Benjamin, a stay-at-home dad, was with his kids when they died; the accident might have been his fault. His wife left soon after—she moved to Portland, where her Facebook updates indicate she's dating a man who "looks like an NPR listener." And even though when Ben's kids were alive he at times resented being a full-time dad, it's to caregiving that he returns when he needs a new job. He takes a position caring for a homebound 19-year-old with muscular dystrophy—Trevor is physically limited but intellectually sharp, and the two develop a routine of watching travel shows and mapping America's weirdest roadside attractions. This habit inspires a road trip to visit Trevor's estranged father, where they pick up a few hitchhikers and dodge a mysterious figure in a brown Buick who may or may not be following them.
The novel's structure unfolds in three parallel storylines: Ben and Trev's road trip from Washington State to Salt Lake City; a miserable trip Ben and his wife took years earlier when she was pregnant with their second child; and the slow unfolding of the day Ben's kids died. Evison doles out the story of that fateful day one careful, chapter-length scene at a time, beginning with an achingly perfect description of the breakfast Ben shared with his family the day of the accident. (Chapter title: "Any Other Day.")
Evison is a Washington-based writer whose books have been a case of "too hot, too cold, just right" for my tastes. His first novel, the Washington State Book Award-winning All About Lulu, was a heartfelt but too-quirky love story; his second, West of Here, was sprawling and ambitious, and I gave up on it after a few chapters. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving grapples with big themes, but it retains the sensitive attention to character and detail that was Lulu's strength. The narrow focus on Benjamin's unhappiness—on his guilt, his anxiety about his future, his despair over the end of his marriage—gives a very far-reaching question a very particular face. "Who wants to live in a world where suffering is the only thing that lasts, a place where every single thing that ever meant the world to you can be stripped away in an instant?" Ben asks, and it's a fair question—he did, after all, watch his kids die, unable to save them. Revised Fundamentals is a small, personal tale, a road-trip story twinned with Ben's struggle to figure out if life is worth living, and why—the end will come as no surprise, but getting there is an enjoyable journey.