Jonathan Evison’s new novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin), is as much a cathartic exercise in healing as it is an intimate story of the unusual bond between Ben, a charmingly pathetic character who’s lost his wife, children, and home, and Trev, a “tyrannical” teenager with the debilitating disease of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, for whom Ben works as a caretaker.
Personal experiences informed Evison’s storytelling in Revised Fundamentals. When he was a little boy, his 16-year-old sister was killed in a freak accident: “My sister’s death still reverberates through my family all these years later. In certain ways, it’s like Mrs. Havisham’s clock.” Much later, the adult Evison hit bottom when his first wife had an affair with his best friend and the marriage collapsed. “I felt that I had lost so much,” Evison says, “but I was so grateful for a supportive network of friends and family. I was a real mess, and they gave me somewhere to land.” This inspired Evison to become a professional caregiver, so like his character Ben in the novel, Evison took a 20-hour night course in Bremerton, Wash., and began to get assignments.
“Mostly what they teach you is how to insert catheters, be professional, and keep your distance,” says Evison, who lives with his second wife and son in Washington State. “What they don’t prepare you for is the reality of really caring for somebody. My friend Case (the real-life Trev) was my last client, and I was his caretaker for three years. He’s like family at this point. That giving-back part is really what helped rebuild my life.” Although Revised Fundamentals is dedicated to Case, who knows about the book and is “really excited” about it, Evison is adamant that it’s not about Case or his family. “We did take a lot of road trips together, like in the book, but it’s about the rhythm of that life and some of the dynamics of that family. They know it’s fiction.” Evison hopes that the book, and the deep humanity of Trev, will help in part to alleviate our culture’s marginalization of people with disabilities.
This is Evison’s third book, following All About Lulu (Soft Skull, 2008) and the New York Times bestseller West of Here (Algonquin, 2011). He’s been writing all his life, despite distractions. When he was 14, in the ’80s, Evison was the front man for March of Crimes, a punk rock band in Seattle. He also had a syndicated comedy show on radio and jobs as a dishwasher, tomato sorter (removing the rotten ones), and hacking up road kill to feed to captive bears at a wildlife refuge. “And I’ve been in a million bad love affairs, too. So all that time when you’re working those crappy jobs and loving the wrong people, as a writer you always know these things are going to inform you, that any experience is good experience,” he says. “I write as a matter of need—seven books and God knows how many short stories before anyone published me. I’ve been blessed with an optimistic disposition, I think.”
Now that he’s established himself, Evison rarely misses a trade show or book launch party. He’s executive editor of Brad Listi’s arts and culture online magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. “After 20 years of writing in basically a vacuum, I love being part of a community. I’ve vetted other writers’ contracts for them and do publicity for free just because I like a book. Some people think of it as hubris or careerism, but I love to champion books. You can’t use your whole sphere of influence just to help yourself.”
For Evison, the only themes in his writing are change and reinvention. “I just need to believe that we’re not in some form of stasis, that we can try to be whoever we want to be,” he says. “We probably won’t get there, but we might get a little bit closer, you know?”