There is a familiarity about Jonathan Evison’s new novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving that really makes me want to know this guy.
Evison writes with an edge but softens it with genuine compassion and intelligence. The novel is a story of personal redemption that borrows from the tried and true “road story” formula without actually attempting to reinvent it.
“I wanted it to be a hypothetical road trip, and I didn’t set out to write a road novel,” Evison said by phone from the road in the Pacific Northwest near his Seattle home. “But, finally, I had to send them out on the road. If you’re going to add to that kind of canon, you’ve really got to add something to it.”
The story is one with which the author is very familiar. Ben, like Evison, has settled into a mid-life career change as a personal caregiver for Trev, a teenager who is suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy and must use a wheelchair. There is an ongoing allusion to a tragedy that took the life of Ben’s children and drove his wife away and drove him into the field of caring for others. Evison worked with a boy similar to Trev, and his first wife did leave him, but fortunately the saddest part of the story was a matter of fiction.
“Still, this is by far the book that is most personally informed by my experience,” Evison said.
Eventually, Ben and Trev hit the road to visit and confront Trev’s deadbeat father. Like The Canterbury Tales, the duo grows into a group as a cast of characters hop into the minivan one after another. Dot, Peaches and Elton are the perfect combination of flawed yet optimistic spirits. They provide a fascinating collective dichotomy. Yes, one is a teenager bordering on basket case, another is eight months pregnant, and one is well on his way to becoming a career underachiever and petty thief. Those are exactly the characteristics one would expect to find in someone who is able to hop into a van full of strangers and traverse the country.
What Evison does, again through obvious personal experience, is reveal a more human side to the trio that removes any stigma that might label them vagabonds or worse. It’s a writer’s gift, and Evison has it. But it really only works because Evison is also irreverent and willing to offend when the situation calls for it. It’s a redemptive story, yes, but there’s no preaching, which is nice.
“I’m not into memoir, I like to learn from my characters, and I wanted to write a novel about surviving irredeemable loss,” Evison said. “Those people just came up, people who needed each other and who are defined by who needed what.”
There’s more to Evison than just words, which is why he’s appearing at Ska Brewing Co. on Monday instead of at Maria’s Bookshop, where he appeared two years ago during a tour of his previous novel West of Here.
“Usually when I do signings at bookstores, I like to have beer there, but this is even better,” Evison said.
He will discuss his writing as well as his own compelling past, which included a stint fronting a punk band in the 1980s that included Ben Shepherd and Stone Gossard. Shepherd would gain later fame with Soundgarden, and Gossard was a co-founder of Pearl Jam in 1990. Evison said he still keeps in touch with his musical pals but doesn’t perform anymore.
As to what to expect at Monday’s event, which will be hosted by yours truly with help from KDUR Station Manager Bryant Liggett, not even the author knows. But if Evison has his way, it should be a good time.
“I show up, look at my schedule and go from there,” he said.