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. . .
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."
Read an Excerpt
I got up and took a shower and headed on out to see the Musée d'Orsay.
The day was cold and cloudy and getting inside the museum was a relief: it was warm in there, it was beautiful. The art was something. Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, his Olympia. How'd he get that light? Renoir's Dancing at the Moulin de la Galette. How'd he get that great light?
I went through the museum, feeling worse and worse. The Renoirs--and Renoir wasn't even my favorite painter, for God's sake--made my stomach tie up. I stood for a long time in front of Danse à la ville and Danse à la campagne, and remembered what one asshole professor had said to me about what I could do to get an A. "You must be born again, Mr. Hampton! You must be born again!"
What if I couldn't be born again? The two pairs of Renoir's dancers--in the city, in the country--showed me a million things in terms of light and technique and even social commentary, but something else in them made me feel like crying like a kid. Some people, somewhere, had been as happy as that.
It didn't matter, because no one in this century painted like that anymore. I tried to remember, back in LA, Tony Berlant using nuts and bolts and metal in all his pieces, doing it for years now. Had Berlant been born again? Born again to what?
I got out of there after a couple of hours and went into a place for lunch, big chunks of veal in a red-orange sauce. I paid too much for it. I went back to the hotel, waited for an hour, went out to a café, and started talking to a good-looking American guy who worked for a French computer firm. Everyone did, he said. Work in computers.
"This is thebest café in Paris, absolutely the best. Do you play squash? I make it a point to play three nights a week. Keep in shape. Have to. Going to the École? I have a friend who went there. Best education in France. Absolutely the best. Ever been married? Neither have I. That's the reason I stay over here. They can't get to me here. Not that there aren't plenty of women. Plenty of women! How long have you been here? A day! I've been here twelve years, off and on. Ex-pat for life, I imagine. Are you free for dinner? Like Greek food? I know an excellent place, right in this neighborhood. Best place in France. Here's Jean-Pierre. Jean-Pierre! Over here! Bob, here, will be going to the École. I told him it's the best . . ."
"Where are you from?" The Frenchman wore a bright red crew-neck sweater and a look like he had a sewer right under his chin.
"California. Los Angeles."
"And you come here? That is bizarre. Everyone in France wants to go to Los Angeles. It is our Mecca. We all want to go there."
"More wine, don't you think?" The American guy seemed pretty happy about things. "Greek food tonight?"
The next morning I woke up with a hangover and a feeling of doom. This is it, man! You're here, this is it! Cut the crap, do what you're supposed to.
I crossed the river and headed toward the Louvre. I knew it
was banal or bourgeois, but all I really wanted to see was The Raft of the Medusa. Then I'd head out to the École, sign up early if I could, get a newspaper, look for a decent room or maybe even an apartment.
Down in the museum's basement I started to sweat. I checked my jacket and backpack and headed up into wings of art, and more art. Too much of it! Renaissance stuff and pre-Renaissance stuff, and Saint Stephens and Saint Sebastians, and miles of virgins and angels. I recognized everything I'd ever studied and saw a thousand things I'd never seen before. I thought of all the men who'd had something like the same dream I had, to knock their socks off! To be born again! Would I ever get hung in a museum? Forget it, I couldn't even get a single show. I didn't even know what to paint.
I heard myself panting for breath. I'd just go see The Raft and then head over to the École. I spent another couple of hours looking for the damn thing, if only to know for sure that other people sometimes felt like they were drowning, slipping off, losing it altogether. But The Raft of the Medusa was undergoing restoration "due to humidity." It stood behind a tall plywood partition. Just a few desperate arms poking up beyond the plywood. Help! We're drowning over here!
The École des Beaux-Arts had very ornate and wonderful gates. They were closed tight and chained with a padlock. I didn't know why they were closed, but it wasn't going to matter. I pushed my face against the cold metal bars and looked in at the gray, rainy courtyard. Who had I been kidding?
I went back to the hotel, dressed for a run, and headed west along the south side of the Seine, passing churches and buildings and more buildings. Not my home. Not my city. I got to the Tour Eiffel and turned to cross a bridge across the Seine. Was this the Trocadéro?--dozens of black guys my age were selling umbrellas to nobody, shivering in the cold.
I ran back to the Hôtel du Danube, and went thudding through the lobby. I sat for a long time on the edge of the bed, then showered, took a nap, got up again at six, and went to the café where I'd met the American guy.
He'd just come from his psychoanalyst. "I tell him my troubles in French, it's good for both of us. Do you want to have dinner? What about Czech food? Something Italian?"
"Do you mind if I ask . . . how old are you?"
We ate Italian, "the best in France." I'd had better on the Santa Monica Promenade. We didn't get out of the restaurant until after midnight, and walked over to the Île de la Cité for ice cream. The city's lights twinkled in the freezing drizzle. We ordered double cones, pistachio and chocolate, and started back another way, and there, on a bridge that separated one part of the island from the other, I checked out maybe a couple of hundred students, most of them American. They sat right out in the rain, huddled up in duffle coats, smoking dope, having a great time. None of them looked up. They were all at least ten years younger than I was. I'd waited way too long. Who did I think I was kidding?
So that was that. I flew back to LA. I'd enroll at the Otis Art Institute in September, brush up on design for a semester or two, get work in advertising, drafting, maybe special effects. Maybe get an MFA, finally, and teach. Figure out something to do for the summer. I'd think of something. On the plane back, I asked myself how I felt. My gone Texan dad gave me the answers: like a sick flea on a pig's butt. Lower than a toad. Wronger than a three-dollar bill.