Meet Bob Hampton. UCLA graduate in his late 20s, lean and muscular, a skilled painter but perhaps not an especially talented one, he's got one mission: to fly to Paris and enroll in art school at the École des Beaux Arts. To become a great artist, he has to study the masters, doesn't he? To make his mark on the art world, he must experience firsthand dramatic subjects worthy of painting, no? Indeed, to discover his own vision he must first absorb the world-views of the Matisses and Da Vincis who came before him, right? If the only answer to these questions is yes, then Bob is on a one-way collision with his dreams.
Convinced that in Paris he will finally fulfill the command his last UCLA art teacher gave him -- "You must be born again, Mr. Hampton" -- Bob has packed, sold, or exchanged all his worldly possessions. But it's more than money he'll lose if he goes bust on the Left Bank -- it's the entire architecture of his life. Pity the central character of any story with hopes that large and unwieldy. Paris fast drains Bob of his ambition, and he retreats as hastily as he arrived. For in Paris the young artists aspire to study in California, and no one is where he thinks he should be. It's this state of confused desire that opens Carolyn See's latest novel, The Handyman, and sets the stage for a bittersweet journey that takes Bob inward to the true flame of his artistic longing and back out into the world of color and people and geography.
As much a statement on aesthetic principle as a novel of self-exploration, The Handyman sets Bob on the unexplored path toward artistic expression and off the traveled route of following in the masters' well-trod footsteps. The Handyman is a novelist's manifesto on the nature of art and how each writer must work for and trust the tale she's meant to tell, each painter realize and give himself over to the scene he's individually meant to create. Along the way toward learning this lesson, Bob meets a cast of idiosyncratic characters alive with problems and heartaches worse than his own.
Filled with See's trademark wit and the piercing revelations discovered within the everyday that distinguished her memoir, Making History, from so many forgettable others, The Handyman is a lesson in inspiration and a pure joy to read.
Returned from Paris and at loose ends, Bob crashes in a house full of graduate students, the only other souls more lost than he, and sets out on a summer of in-between time. He'll enroll back at the Otis School of Design in the fall and in the meantime make do as a handyman. Like many an aspiring artist or writer, Bob is figuring out that balance between art and paying the rent, between angst-ridden time with the brush and palette and walks out in the city, where the teeming masses know nothing of one man's private obsession. What else can Bob really expect when he puts himself to work with flyers advertising "WHATEVER'S WRONG I CAN FIX IT!" Part of the charm of See's conceit here is that there's actually very little that Bob can fix. Handed a broken lamp by a beautiful young mother anxious to please her developmentally slow son with its repair, Bob dashes out on his lunch break to pay a real repairman to patch it up. After rewiring a dryer, no one is more surprised than Bob when his slapdash job manages to whirl the machine back to life. It's the wrongs that don't require mechanical fixing that Bob is really handy with.
Meandering through the vast neighborhoods of L.A. on calls from people as disparate as they are desperate, Bob steps through the door of the world and finds his home. There's the Landrys, who want him to paint and landscape their pool. Diligent at his work, trying out every color of blue he can mix, affable but sensitive Bob can't help but notice that it's more than the pool that needs attention. Mr. Landry is seldom home -- and when he is, he ignores his sexpot daughter and brooding, gorgeous wife. Bob manages to feed both of them the attention they're starved for even as he answers the call to Jamie, mother of two unmanageable children and their menagerie of bizarre animals. They, too, are neglected by a workaholic father, and Bob is the answer to their domestic prayers. Then there's Hank and Ben, teenaged refugees from the stultifying Midwest for whom L.A. was a dream of freedom short-lived. When Bob answers their call, Ben is so ill that Bob can barely stand to be in his sickroom with him. Hank has been brave to stay with Ben at all, and it's up to Bob to pull it all together. Doing laundry, scouring floors, feeding neglected pets, hosing down mattresses, and setting out the fragile, ailing people of the back side of L.A. into the sun of their own backyards, Bob is the handyman who fixes hearts and homes.
With her light touch, See carves a compelling march toward destiny out of a meandering summer when Bob realizes that being a handyman means filling in where others, namely men, have abandoned their duty. In doing so, he touches flesh to flesh, soul to soul with subjects worth paying attention to, worth learning by heart, literally, in order to paint. As a gift for his bedside, he draws Ben in a throne, magisterial and serene. To propose to the woman he finally falls for, he paints a story of their falling in love, his dusky figure on his knees before her flowing gown. In all of his taking care and mental recording of the people outside his own numbed and sorrowful past, Bob opens his aesthetic sensibility to light and space and color. The reader of The Handyman experiences no less.