From the Publisher
"The Handyman proves once again that Carolyn See is one of this generation's most talented and versatile writers."
"IRRESISTIBLE . . . A SPARKLING ENTERTAINMENT."
"BEGUILING, CHARMING, WITTY, INSPIRINGCarolyn See's novel The Handyman is so wonderful in so many ways that it's going to seem as if her mother wrote every review for it. Twenty-eight-year-old Bob Hampton is a struggling artist who is panicking at the possibility that he will never find his authentic 'voice.' After a failed (and endearing) trip to Paris, Bob returns to his home in Los Angeles and decides to spend the summer working as a handyman before giving art school one more try. What he becomes, of course, is a handyman of the heart."
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[AN] INVENTIVE AND ENERGETIC STORY . . . See offers a satisfying take on the mysterious and unpredictable ways that real life can be turned into art."
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.
With this compelling work, one that requires some suspension of disbelief, See evokes an L.A. rarely seen: a place where unexpected beauty blossoms in the margins.
See's writing is, as befits the subject, masterly, almost painterly, and colors the whole work.
New York Magazine
...[O]ffers a satisfying take on the mysterious and unpredictable ways that real lfie can be turned into art.
See has a good ear for witty dialogue, and she knows how to throw quirky characters together for comic effect...
The Christian Science Monitor
...[A] highly enjoyable novel about the restorative and instructional powers of unprovoked generosity, as well as what it means to be and become an artist.
Bob Hampton's at loose ends in the hot Los Angeles summer of 1996. While pondering art school in L.A., he earns his living as a handyman he'll do anything, much of it involving women of all ages. He meets charming Old World widows, shell-shocked about-to-be divorcees, randy teenagers, militant feminists but he also becomes involved in the messy lives of single unattached men and lost children. Everyone he touches ends up better or happier for the experience. Making a difference in the lives of others, however, doesn't do much for his own problem he's unable to come up with anything original or noteworthy in his art. Slowly, though, the new pattern of his life becomes interwoven with his creative side. Reaching out to life's losers, he finds himself creating original and complex works. See (Making History) has written a feel-good novel reminiscent of the best work of Allison Lurie with a dollop of AnneTyler. -- Jo Manning, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
David Willis McCullough
...Carolyn See has breathed genuine life into her narrator....See...succeeds at creating an artist who is neither a mystic nor a monster, but a genial guy next door with a job to do...
The New York Times Book Review
...[E]xplores the mysterious ways in which art, love, and identity are forged...a sparkling entertainment....irresistible.
An enchanting story by the ever-adventurous See (Making History) depicts an aspiring painter-turned-handyman who discovers "the infinite within the quotidian." The framing device a Guggenheim application dated August 15, 2027, and rendered in flawless grant-speak-informs us up-front that Robert Hampton will become "the preeminent international artist of the New Century" and that a group known as "Los Testigos" (witnesses) received both artworks and spiritual sustenance from him during his formative period. But when 28-year-old Bob's dejected first-person narrative begins in May 1996, he's just another drifting Los Angeleno, convinced he will never be a painter, sharing a dingy house with three other disconnected souls, marking time until the fall. Meanwhile, his flyers boasting "WHATEVER'S WRONG I CAN FIX IT!" bring calls from various people, some of whom don't need a handyman so much as a rescue squad. Among the more desperate cases: a recently transplanted gay midwesterner unable to cope with his AIDS-stricken teenage lover, and two women so overwhelmed by bad marriages that they can care neither for their children nor their houses, which stink from ankle-deep dirty dishes and clothes. The neglected wife of a sports agent, her sexy stepdaughter, and a 60ish widow are more capable, if almost as needy. Over the course of a single summer, Bob does laundry, scours bathrooms, sorts papers, beds down with several customers, connects his roommates with others, and finds his identity as an artist in the casual pieces he creates to cheer up his unhappy clientele.
The story may sound schematic in summary, especially since most of the characters can be matched with a "Testigo"from the grant application, but See's customary wit and sharp eye for the particulars of American life at the turn of the century flesh out the whole with human complexity. Undertones of spiritual as well as creative awakening are perfectly calibrated to enrich the text without weighing it down. An ambitious exploration of artistic inspiration that could have been unbearably pretentious but that instead, thanks to Bob's down-to-earth voice and the author's delicate touch, proves magical. . .
Read an Excerpt
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 artistbut 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 lagmaybekept 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.)