It’s one thing to name the main character of a novel Benjamin Benjamin — thankfully, and kind of elegantly, Jonathan Evison resists the urge to do very much with that self-conscious bit of quirkiness until the end of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Aug. 28).
It’s another thing entirely to take sad-sack Ben Benjamin and have him explain his situation to a man he’s just met: “I didn’t plan for any of this, Cash, believe me. Not this trip, not these passengers, and definitely not what I left behind. I planned like hell for something else entirely. All this just happened.” When “all this” is a shaggy-dog road trip in a wheelchair van whose passengers include a teenaged runaway and an ex-con inventor, a quote like this jerked out of context looks like contrivance, manipulative and heartwarming and Sundance-y.
But that’s out of context. In context, it slides past quickly, effortlessly: Evison has developed the command of craft and tightness of focus necessary to animate quirky characters and outlandish set pieces, and to make them into something more than the sum of their twee parts.
This is difficult — quirkiness is seldom something that serves a novelist well. Evison’s last book, the sprawling and overambitious West of Here, had such a large cast that he could do little more than stereotype, and despite Caregiving’s smaller canvas many characters only get to flash an outsized comic feature or two. But these come in places where it counts — like in the relationship between professional caregiver Ben and Trev, whose muscular dystrophy confines him to a wheelchair (and, later, the wheelchair van). The very thinness of their shared quirks (spinning elaborate sexual fantasies about girls they see in the mall food court; spinning elaborate sexual fantasies about the better-endowed weather girls on the Weather Channel) actually captures the thin soil and circumscribed expectations of their comradeship.
So it’s surprising when Evison miscalculates, as he does when explaining how Ben goes from happily married stay-at-home dad to changing bedpans for $9 an hour. Spaced out in flashbacks interrupting Ben and Trev’s journey, it’s a sad story, a well-assembled tearjerker with sadly gorgeous moments of family life, but Evison doles it out slowly and methodically, blunting the impact of how Ben’s life collapses by foreshadowing so heavily that, by the time we get there, we already know what happens and how.
This is nearly the exact opposite of the situation ex-Supreme Court nominee and would-be memoirist Karen Hollander writes herself into in Kurt Andersen’s True Believers (Random House, July 10). Similarly split, Karen’s story is weighted heavily toward the flashback, where her childhood fascination with James Bond becomes a dry run for much more serious cloak-and-dagger plotting as a radicalized 1968 Harvard freshman.
While there’s a paranoid echo of conspiracy as memoirist-Karen uncovers the secrets that surrounded her earlier self, True Believers works best when sticking to a story, and Karen’s best stories lie behind the patchouli and pot-smoke curtain of the ’60s. When it pauses to display its research or drop a name — younger Karen implausibly both belittles Hillary Rodham in high school and sits in on a seminar with Bill Clinton in college — it loses steam.
Andersen’s cultural criticism is lucid and amusing, like when he considers old men in blue jeans or the Stones touring into their 70s as “annoying and freaky, like an album that kept skipping for 50 years and nobody lifted the needle to move it past the scratch.” But it’s also beside his point. And when Andersen not only shows us his old lefties transformed into art dealers and real-estate impresarios but delivers a dose of knowing editorializing (“The shit we got away with as kids! We are the smuggest generation”), you’ll be forgiven for skimming past the knowing self-criticism to get back to the business at hand.