More than 20 years ago, when my first daughter was born with cerebral palsy, my wife and I were plunged into that netherworld of home health care. I’ve since learned that there are lots of us. Tens of millions of us, actually, somehow holding down full-time jobs and cobbling together what looks like a normal life. We rely, precariously, on personal care aides, the fastest-growing occupation over the next decade, according to the Labor Department. They’re usually poor, female and, in my experience, recent immigrants, making less than fast-food workers. The good ones adored our daughter, read her books and enjoyed singing to her. The bad ones stood on the patio smoking cigarettes and talking on the cellphone until it was time to leave.
Evison’s bittersweet novel is about one of the good ones: no Florence Nightingale, just a witty, brokenhearted man who needs a job. He’s not perfect, and neither is this novel, but it’s moving and funny, and, my God, how refreshing it is to read a story about someone caring for a disabled person that isn’t gauzed in sentimentality or bitterness. Among his several odd jobs, Evison once worked as a personal care attendant himself, and this novel is dedicated to one of his clients. The experience seems to have taught him just what true caregiving is all about, and that insight along with his plaintive sense of humor had me alternately chuckling and wiping my eyes through much of his book.
The hapless narrator of “Revised Fundamentals” is Ben Benjamin, who’s just emerged from 18 months of blinding grief. His wife has left him, and his house has been repossessed. “Immobility is slowly draining the life out of me,” he says, “like a car left to sit in the driveway too long.” At 39, he knows he’s not qualified to do much. He’s sold muffins, worked at a bookstore, painted parade floats. “I’m just pathetic,” he says at the start of what I worried would be another whiny-man novel.
“What led you to caregiving?” a potential client asks him.
“I’m a caring person,” he says. “I understand people’s needs.”
“Why do you wanna work for nine bucks an hour?”
Despite that candor, Ben gets a job caring for 19-year-old Trev, who uses a wheelchair and lives with his mom. The young man is twisted and shrunken by the effects of MD (“103 pounds at his last checkup”), but Ben sees “a pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination.” Warily, the two men strike up a friendship within the narrow confines of Trev’s abilities. They watch a lot of the Weather Channel and rate the weather girls’ breasts. They plot wacky roadside attractions on a giant map of the United States (the Spam Museum, the Two Story Outhouse, etc.). And much of their time is taken up with the arduous demands of caring for someone who can’t shower or use the bathroom by himself. The work is dull, embarrassing, icky. This is a kind of intimacy most people don’t see much of in life — or fiction. (There’s also some macabre caregiver humor here that only we caregivers will get.)