The Handyman: A Novel

The Handyman: A Novel

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by Carolyn See

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With this brilliant novel about the surprises of destiny and the origins of fame, the critically acclaimed author of Golden Days ("Extraordinary . . . a very, very important book"-Los Angeles Times Book Review) and Making History ("Radiant . . . exciting and imaginative"-Cleveland Plain Dealer) firmly establishes her place as one of the preeminent chroniclers of our…  See more details below


With this brilliant novel about the surprises of destiny and the origins of fame, the critically acclaimed author of Golden Days ("Extraordinary . . . a very, very important book"-Los Angeles Times Book Review) and Making History ("Radiant . . . exciting and imaginative"-Cleveland Plain Dealer) firmly establishes her place as one of the preeminent chroniclers of our times.
The Handyman is the story of Bob Hampton, an aspiring young painter who has had to face the humbling fact that he doesn't know what to paint.  And how are you supposed to be an artist in this world if you don't have a vision? Bob trades in his artist's palette for a minivan full of house paints, hammers, and nails, and sets about earning a little cash as a handyman.
Although he turns out to be very bad at fixing the things he's hired to fix, Bob demonstrates quite a knack for fixing the lives of the people around him. In the midst of his jerry-built repairs and inspired home improvements, Bob meets an extraordinary cast of characters--rendered in all their delightful eccentricity and human frailty as only Carolyn See can-each of whom shows Bob the true scope of his own remarkable talent. There's Angela Landry, a housewife with far too much time on her hands, a sexpot of a stepdaughter, and a son in need of  attention; Jamie Walker, whose allergy-prone and ADD-afflicted children keep a menagerie of scaly pets that far exceed Jamie's managerial skills; Valerie LeClerc, older, sadder, and certainly wiser than Bob; and Hank and Ben, who leave a narrow-minded Midwest only to find unremitting illness and isolation in the California of their dreams.
Replete with stunning images and all of Carolyn See's trademark humor and wisdom, The Handyman depicts the countless ways in which our lives are intertwined and the profound effects we can have on one another. It is the kind of surprising and miraculously uplifting novel we have come to expect from the woman Diane Johnson has called "one of our most important writers."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews
Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

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.

—Elizabeth Haas

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IN MAY OF 1996 I FLEW FROM LOS ANGELES TO PARIS, to get settled in the city before I enrolled in the fall semester of the École des Beaux-Arts. I was twenty-eight years old; I had a bachelor's degree in Fine Arts from UCLA and ten thousand dollars in traveler's checks. I'd spent one summer in Paris before, when I was eighteen. I'd been out of school for five years, "finding myself"--thinking I might be an artist--but that search had turned up nothing. In Paris, at least, I had the idea that I could see what others had done, and what I might do. I was scared shitless.

My plane landed at Orly at quarter of six on a cold Tuesday morning. I had a long wait for my luggage, since I'd brought enough in theory to live for a year, and I had a hard and embarrassing discussion with a cab driver when I finally got out of the airport. I'd expected to feel great, but the jet lag--maybe--kept me from being happy as the taxi drove through suburbs and grimy fog. I had to keep reminding myself that a lot of other artists had come to this city. All of them must have had a first day, and that day had to have been lonesome.

I kept waiting for the city to turn into something beautiful, but I had a fair wait. After about forty minutes, we came in sight of the river, and yes, everything was as great as everyone said. I gave the driver the address of the Hôtel du Danube on the rue Jacob, on the Left Bank. It was too expensive for me but I'd allowed myself a week there, since it was close to the École, the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre, and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. I think I would have to say that everything in me at that time pointed in one direction, to find out what it meant to be a fine artist, to put my life on the line for art, to combine everything I'd learned and everything I felt and then distill that into paintings. It hadn't happened in LA--"the art scene" in LA was crap-but if it were going to happen anywhere, it would happen here. In two years I'd be thirty, and then the whole thing would be ridiculous.

The cab pulled up to the Hôtel du Danube at ten in the morning, and right away I saw I'd made a mistake. The lobby was dark and glossy and touristy, and a clerk my age gave me a chickenshit stare. I asked for their smallest room and I got it-a dark little cubicle toward the back with a single bed, a shorted-out television, an armoire set at an angle on the sloping floor, and wallpaper that went on all the way across the ceiling-brown cabbage roses on a tan background. The one small window looked out on a roof made of corrugated tin.

I felt lousy, but, again, I put that down to jet lag.

After I washed my hands and face I went out for a walk. I knew a run would make me feel better, but I thought I should know where I was running before I suited up and started.

I walked along the rue Jacob to the rue des Saints-Pères and turned up toward the Seine. The sun was out by now. Things looked the way I expected, but not the way I expected. The river was amazing. I could look across it to the Louvre and that was amazing too, more than I could register, more than I could take in. That so many people, so long ago, had been so dedicated to beauty! I thought of LA, weeds sprouting from the sidewalks and retaining walls bulging with dirt from the last earthquake and all the stucco bungalows on the sides of all the hills and how they faded into that beige background of dead ryegrass. I thought of Salvadorean women on Western Avenue with little kids in strollers and more kids strapped to their backs. Everything I remembered seemed monochromatic and sad.

I came back from the river, walking in the direction of the hotel. I thought I should see Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and the famous cafés on the boulevard Saint-Germain. I was getting hungry. Take it a step at a time, I thought. A thousand people, a thousand thousand people have done what you're doing. They got through it. So you can get through it. Half the people around me were French, but most of the other half were American-hunched together on sidewalks, poring over guidebooks and maps. The French pushed past them. The shops had windows filled with high-class tourist junk-etchings cut out of books and framed, tarnished jewelry you could pick up in LA in thrift shops for ten bucks. And stuff only a moron might want-life-sized stuffed leather pigs.

Saint-Germain-des-Prés was great. Old, old, a mass going on at the far end, groups of Parisians and tourists wandering around in the dark. It calmed me down. I was facing a depressing fact, the fact that I didn't want to go into a place by myself for lunch. I had to remind myself that I was an American, well educated, able-bodied, with enough money to last a while. Picasso had done it (not that he was American). Hemingway could do it. (But thinking of myself at the Ritz Bar in a trench coat might have made me laugh, if I could laugh.)

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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What People are saying about this

Andrea Barrett
Carolyn See's Handyman is an inspired creation — saint, sinner, life-filled artist and common sense savior.
— Author of The Voyage of the Narwhal
Fannie Flagg
The Handyman proves once again that Carolyn See is one of this generation's most talented and versatile writers.
— Author of Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!
Alice Adams
The Handyman is a marvelous book, so funny and inventive, so sexy and so kind. I loved it.
— Author of The Last Lovely City
Alison Lurie
If you want to know what the United States will be like in ten or twenty years, all you have to do is read Carolyn See's wonderfully acute and perceptive novels.
— Author of The Last Resort: A Novel

Meet the Author

Carolyn See is the author of nine books. She is the Friday-morning reviewer for The Washington Post, and she has been on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle and PEN/West International. She has won both Guggenheim and Getty fellowships and currently teaches English at UCLA. She lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Handyman 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
loves-2-read-in-CA More than 1 year ago
My book club chose this book and I am very disappointed. I think the story is shallow and I do not care about any of the characters. I would read almost anything else.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was adequate but I was disappointed. The characters were just not very well developed and I didnt really care about any of them, including the main character. The dialogue was not that well written. There was no complexity, everyone was portrayed in a very simplistic way without any depth. Disappointing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first read Carolyn See's 'Making a Literary Life,' which was amazingly funny, honest, instructive, and touching. Then I picked up 'The Handyman' and was amazed by the story's flow, the characters, the humor, the emotional pull of the narrative. I even read it outloud to myself. The language is simple, but quite affective. Just marvelous.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I have read all year. It touched me, made me realize that our calling in life is not right under our noses but deep in our souls.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Best book of 1999. Robert Hampton is a modern-day messiah.