Book Buzz: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

RevisedThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

Sometimes a book’s title really draws in readers, but the 2017 Whatcom READS! selection, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, sounds more like a textbook for a Bellingham Technical College nursing course than the tragicomic road trip novel that it is.

Don’t let the title stop you from picking up this worthy tale by Jonathan Evison and joining your friends and neighbors across Whatcom County in discussing the nature of redemption and what it means to truly care for someone.

The novel’s protagonist, 39-year-old Benjamin Benjamin, is a bit of a sad sack. His wife left him. He’s recovering (sort of) from an unnamed disaster. He’s scraping by with credit card cash advances. He’s never had a “real” job and he has turned to professional caregiving as a career of last resort.

When he gets an interview to become a caregiver for a horny teenager named Trev who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, he grabs the opportunity, never imagining how the experience will transform him.

Caring for Trev can be physically demanding, mentally numbing (hours and hours of Weather Channel and first-person-shooter video games) and depressing. As you can imagine, Trev doesn’t get out much, and even in his own sorry state, Ben worries that Trev isn’t really living.

Ben cooks up a project mapping out bizarre roadside attractions of the giant-ball-of-string variety. Before long, Trev hatches his own plan to set out on an actual road trip to visit his estranged father. En route, they pick up Dot, a tough-talking runaway, and Peaches, a pregnant farm girl, and learn about forgiveness, especially about forgiving oneself.

A common mantra for authors is “write what you know” and according to Evison’s website (“First of all, almost everybody calls me Johnny…”) he is a “failure at heart.” Johnny’s had every crappy job there is, just like Ben. He’s also been a professional caregiver, and indeed, this book is dedicated to Case Levenson, a man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy for whom Johnny worked for three years.

Johnny also experienced a devastating family tragedy, which he shares in an author’s note at the end of the book. Tragedy is a central element to Ben’s story. Bit by bit we learn the source of Ben’s profound sadness and guilt. Johnny knows what he’s writing about, and it shows, so that the funny parts seem real, and the sad parts seem real, and the resolution seems real and you’ll cry real tears but also will feel real hope at the end—for the characters, and for humankind.

Readers will have the chance to meet Johnny and learn more about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving March 9-11, when he visits Whatcom County.

The Whatcom READS! committee, headed by WCLS Adult Programming Coordinator Ann McAllen, has lined up a variety of fascinating programming to round out your appreciation of the tome.

In addition to being the focus of many book group gatherings throughout Whatcom County leading up to the big event—including this week in Blaine and Bellingham—highlights include a workshop on “Caregiving and the Art of Living During a Prolonged Illness,” a visit from the authors of Weird Washington: Your Travel Guide to Washington’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, and a “Think and Drink” beer tasting with Johnny with special beers created by the North Fork Brewery. Check out the full schedule at http://www.whatcomreads.org, and get reading.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, January 18, 2017)