Tue August 28, 2012
Broken Hearts And Dirty Minds In 'Fundamentals'
The first and most important thing you need to know about Jonathan Evison's heartbreaking, maddening novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is that one of its two main characters is a paralyzed teenage boy, named Trevor. The other is a grown man, Ben, who frequently acts like a teenage boy. Your enjoyment of the book — the follow-up to Evison's well-regarded West of Here — will be largely predicated on how much you like listening in on can-you-top-this, gross-out sex talk, and ruefully self-demeaning descriptions of the female of the species.
"From our preferred vantage opposite Cinnabon, we objectify, demystify, belittle, and generally marginalize the fair sex, as though we weren't both completely terrified of them," says Ben, the book's sad-sack narrator.
"Look at the turd-cutter on her," Trevor says, of a poodle-haired blonde in tight jeans. 'Would you tap that?'
"In a heartbeat," Ben says.
Lolling his head to the side, he looks me in the eye. "I'd give her a Gorilla Mask."
"I'd give her a Bulgarian Gas Mask," I counter.
"I'd give her a German Knuckle Cake."
A little of this goes a long, long way. Evison can be a skillful, compassionate writer who effortlessly evokes a range of characters, from Trevor's no-nonsense mother to Ben's terminally furious ex. But his compulsive return to Trevor's fascination with women and what he'd like to do to them — or on them — suggests a kind of authorial paralysis that makes this book less Portnoy's Complaint, more American Pie. It's a work that fits neatly into the category Washington Post critic Ron Charles recently identified as "whiny man" books — "stories about white guys who just can't seem to figure out why their lives aren't going better."
When we meet Ben, he's a former aspiring poet and stay-at-home dad, laid low by an unimaginable tragedy, desperate to get a $9-an-hour job as a caregiver. Poor Ben Benjamin — yes, he's such a loser he's been saddled with the same name twice — lives in a soulless shoebox of an apartment, where he spends his time Facebook-stalking his ex-wife's new beau. ("He looks like an NPR listener," Ben snarks. Ouch.)
For the first hundred pages, not much happens. Trevor's long-gone biological father reappears, bearing fast-food chicken and belated apologies. Ben has a one-night stand with a trapeze artist from a local Indian casino (it ends badly). Finally, Trevor and Ben load up a specially equipped minivan with "flares, cook stove, cooler, flashlights, baby wipes, straws, moisturizers, Enalapril, Digitek, Protandim, respirator, memory foam, deodorant, Advil, jock-itch cream, Q-tips, acne pads, electric razors, wool socks, aqua socks ... insurance cards [and] medical files," and go on the inevitable Male Bonding Road Trip. Secrets are revealed. Junk food is consumed. ("Blue tacos? Uh, how did that happen?") Closure occurs.
The trip, by far, is the strongest section of the book, as the relationship between Trevor and Ben blossoms into a thing of strange beauty — and when Evison's not trotting out his Urban Dictionary-level expertise about increasingly absurd sex acts, the writing can be lovely. Here's Ben, recalling his daughter: "I can see Piper, as though in a photograph, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the bright red halo of a cherry Slushy ringing her mouth."
But too often, these passages are like smooth-edged bits of sea glass in a nasty morass of deliberately puerile potty-talk. When you have the misfortune of encountering a pack of teenage boys, online or IRL, you can block them, or leave. Fundamentals offers no such respite. There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Jennifer Weiner is a novelist. Her latest book, The Next Best Thing, came out in July.