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Reviewed by Donna Rifkind,
What has happened to Carolyn See, West Coast doomsayer? A nervy, often brilliant novelist, See has chosen in seven previous books to make her central subject no less than catastrophe – large or small, terrestrial or human – in the valleys and canyons of her beloved Los Angeles. By the look of her latest novel, “The Handyman,” it seems she has taken a sharp turn toward a far more benign, hopeful view of Southern California life.
This is not to say that there are no emergencies in “The Handyman.” There is plenty of trouble, from AIDS to depression and – See’s particular specialty – marital discord. What’s different here is the bigger picture. Instead of imagining fin-de-siecle Los Angeles edging toward disaster, as she did with a nuclear war in “Golden Days” (1987) and a series of cruel deaths from random car accidents in “Making History” (1991), this time See forecasts the coming millennium as a time for artists to restore belief in art after they “cast off the debilitating angst of the twentieth century.” Her protagonist, a 28-year-old aspiring painter named Bob Hampton, puts it this way: “I was beginning to get the idea that maybe you couldn’t change the world but you could paint sadness over, brighten the whole thing up. And maybe the bright stuff would bleed down into the interior and start changing it.”
In May of 1996, when the novel opens, Bob is an affable but directionless slacker, not yet able to harness the talent that will eventually make him “the preeminent international artist of the New Century.” Returning to Los Angeles after a failed sojourn at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he buys a van and advertises his services as a handyman for the summer. Among his clients is a series of helpless housewives who rely on him to do, well, everything – from dishes, babysitting and laundry to filling in for their errant husbands in bed.
Some of Bob’s fix-it campaigns have an affectionately comic tone. During a strictly therapeutic sexual encounter with a slightly wacko mom, he describes her as “squirmy and pretty and jittery and vague and drunk. Her lips went all over my face like she was a pony looking for a sugar cube, and I just stood there, letting her do it.” Other scenes are more sober. In one, Bob rescues a neglected 3-year-old from the family swimming pool; in another, he helps the widow of a college professor sort through a lifetime of her husband’s clothing and papers. The most affecting of Bob’s accomplishments, though, is his intervention in the life of an AIDS patient, a sweet 17-year-old from Ohio whose lover, broke and clueless, calls Bob in desperation. There are no Lazarus-like miracles here, but Bob’s tender bathing of the terrified, wasting boy is a truly moving act of compassion.
While some readers may object to the serial rhythm of “The Handyman,” as Bob steps in to repair one malfunctioning life after another, I found the novel’s schematic design to be persuasively appropriate for a book about contemporary Los Angeles. This is, after all, the city where sitcoms are made, whose very episodic nature makes them fairly accurate representations of the tempo of L.A. life. See gets that tempo exactly right, as she does so many of the city’s elusive details, from her description of the houses in a Hancock Park neighborhood as “two stories and a lawn, two stories and a lawn, two stories and a lawn” to Bob’s recollections of his home town during his brief Paris stint: “I thought of LA . . . 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.”
Considerably less persuasive, though, is Bob’s metamorphosis from haphazard Samaritan to internationally famous artist. In a framing device at the novel’s beginning, a scholar seeking a Guggenheim grant in the year 2027 to study the “Hampton myth” writes that “part of Hampton’s appeal has always been that his vision is often literally inexplicable. . . . the critical vocabulary has not yet been invented, the terms not coined, that explain and define his work.” Is this a mystical detail or a novelist’s cop-out? In either case, the scenes in which Bob finally discovers the style and subject matter that transform him from just another art-school wannabe into a visionary don’t manage to explain his genius in any satisfying way.
And yet “The Handyman,” after all, is all about leaps of faith. Who doesn’t want to believe that art in the next century will once again have the power to inspire, to console, even to heal? Millennial anxiety has become such a novelistic cliche that few readers even bother to remark on it anymore. By turning toward a little millennial hope, Carolyn See provides a welcome antidote.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
Review by Sara Catania
Carolyn See’s sixth novel begins in the year 2027, with a historian writing a grant application to study the early work of the famous artist Robert Hampton, who, “by most accounts, had been among the first to cast off the debilitating angst of the 20th century, and the ever more sterile conceptual art that had become the emblem of its anomie and affectlessness, so popular then, so dated now.” The bulk of the novel, however, takes place some three decades earlier — right about now — over the course of a typically scorching L.A. summer. At this point, Hampton is still in the aspiring-artist phase as he scrapes together a living working as a handyman, fixing people’s toilets and their broken hearts, and trying to paint the heat pressing down on the city — on Silver Lake, Los Feliz, the Hollywood Hills and Hancock Park — that provides the sweaty backdrop for his art. Hampton’s work is anything but sterile. He captures his employers in saintly poses on canvases radiating a light that See describes as “tropical, searing, totally untamed” — and the sessions are often accompanied by amorous encounters. Though Hampton’s brief trysts are many and varied, See succeeds in presenting them not so much as ruthless seductions but as sources of temporary nourishment for both parties that afterwards seem to fall away without a trace of possessiveness or jealousy — as helpful as last month’s antibiotic.
But there is also a suggestion of underlying darkness in The Handyman, of stories that can’t be fully told. There is Hampton’s mother, who sits in her small, dark apartment endlessly staring out the window. There are the self-styled disciples — those whose homes and hearts he repaired during that summer, who re-appear later on, when he’s famous, calling themselves “Testigos” or “Witnesses.” And there’s the disconnect between the romanticized life of the famous artist — of anyone famous, for that matter — and mundane reality. The Handyman is a deceptively sweet tale, gently urging the reader along to its surprising conclusion and leaving us to wax nostalgic for the present, and to wonder what fresh greatness may be lurking nearby, obscured by the scrim of late-20th-century cynicism.
BY RUTH HENRICH | The hero of Carolyn See’s engaging new novel is Bob Hampton, a 28-year-old painter whose not exactly modest goal is to make art that will change the world. Stalled and depressed, he is living in Los Angeles with a pack of dysfunctional roommates and earning a few bucks as a handyman before he enters Otis Art Institute in the fall. There’s no mystery, though, as to whether Bob will make it: The novel opens with an application for a Guggenheim grant, dated August 2027, to study the work of Robert Hampton. The fun is in seeing this artist’s identity begin to take hold while Bob is too busy living his life to notice.
See makes us feel all the fear and frustration and excitement and curiosity of a man in his late 20s who’s searching for some meaning in his life. And we view the other characters through his eyes. (Though none are as finely drawn as Bob, only a couple of them are reduced to caricature.) Most of his clients are wives at loose ends, whose husbands have been claimed by a demanding job or another woman or death. What really needs fixing isn’t their sinks or their bookshelves but their lives, and Bob is a guy who can’t say no even when every instinct tells him to walk away. In the course of that summer he does everything from saving a drowning toddler to cleaning up the soiled body of an AIDS-afflicted teenage boy whose lover and caregiver isn’t much more than a boy himself to organizing a funeral for a pet guinea pig. But Bob is no saint: See makes us aware of his self-doubts, his resentments, his sexual yearnings (most of which get fulfilled) and his fear of losing sight of his real calling, his art.
One of the pleasures the novel offers is the opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of a man with a passion for color and detail — at a “dark orange dress against dark blue,” “a lemon-yellow courtyard banked by purple bougainvillea,” “a clammy persimmon.” And even as Bob is complaining bitterly about his failure as an artist, he’s painting unself-consciously when the inspiration arises: a cerulean patio by the pool that almost claimed the child’s life; a glowing, sexy portrait of an older client turned lover; a luscious vision of India for the dying young man, who’s always wanted to go to Calcutta. As he grows older, he is “beginning to get the idea that maybe you couldn’t change the world but you could paint sadness over, brighten the whole thing up.” Bob’s real business that summer is saving lives, and he saves his own in the process.
SALON | March 12, 1999
Review by Kay Kimbrough
THE HANDYMAN is twenty-eight years old when he decided to seek enlightenment and inspiration in Paris as a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He has a degree from UCLA and $10,000, but he also has a serious problem: he does not know what to paint. He finds himself out of place in Paris, older than all the students he sees: “I’d waited too long. Who did I think I was kidding?”
THE HANDYMAN, Bob Hampton, finds no comfort in the museums of Paris. “Too much of it! Renaissance stuff and pre-Renaissance stuff, and Saint Stephens and Saint Sebastians, and miles of virgins and angels.” Hampton flies back to LA, finds a house to share, buys a van and advertises himself as a handyman. “Whatever’s wrong, I can fix it. Call Bob.” Thus begins his journey, his adventure.
Hampton’s first few calls are discouraging and his entry into the lives of other people reveals some pathetic cases. At the beginning of the second week he goes “to work for a regular family where there seemed to be a lot to do.” The family turns out to be not quite as regular as it first appears, but here Hampton finds inspiration for painting, saves a child’s life, finds his soul mate and founds a family.
Before Hampton realizes what he has found, he touches the lives of many other families, some too bizarre to be believed. He rescues a gay couple, puts order in the chaotic household of a mother and two children with a taste for weird pets, and falls in love with a sixty- year-old woman who is exotic and beautiful despite her years. It is in the process of organizing and ordering and cleaning up the debris and treasures of other people that he finds his subject, people and what they love.
The novel begins with a Guggenheim application for a grant “to trace imagistic connections between the very earliest work of Robert Hampton (eight surviving paintings, as well as a small collection of wooden animals, all owned by the self-proclaimed ‘Testigos’ or ‘Witnesses’), and a large body of his intermediate work…” The story of Hampton’s encounters with the ‘Witnesses’ is the novel, and the documentary information that introduces the story presents a theory of art and creativity that is dramatized by the novel.
An urban planner is given the speech that explains what THE HANDYMAN learned from his humble manual labor: “When we conceive of communities, we often get caught up in our own inventiveness, in an aesthetic that puts the ‘plan’ before the individual. Put another way, we philosophize ourselves to death. We give people what they SHOULD need instead of what they love. Hampton knows–always did know–that people, crave air, gardens, animals, children. My communities make room for all these elements.”
Instead of philosophizing herself to death, See has written a novel about what Hampton discovered in his quest to make ten dollars an hour and his need to escape the ‘plan’ he made to become an artist. He finds his subject in working for others and living his life. This novel is actually a fable, a fairy tale, the story of a male Cinderella who goes from handyman to great artist with the help of a few godmothers in the form of beautiful women. The man who did not want to be like contemporary artists, “using nuts and bolts and metal” and who did not want to copy past artists finds his subject.
See’s fable, unrealistic and unbelievable, is a captivating entertainment, taking the reader on a tour of LA in the nineties with never a dull moment.
By Carolyn See
Book review by Holly Bauer | March 18, 1999
See uses wit, talent and style to create this deceptively simple tale about the complexities of being human and connecting with others.We are living something so interesting here in Southern California. If we were not so entrenched in it, we might be able to better see it, even paint it or write about it. Carolyn See helps us in her newest book, The Handyman. In this smart and timely portrait of life in Los Angeles, she also offers fun and sensible reasons to forget the high-tech, skills-oriented training that the business world tells us we need, and instead, to pursue a life of art, and letters, and love, and conversation.
In The Handyman, we are treated to a series of adventures with Bob Hampton, an aspiring painter in his 20s whose real talent is to help people spiritually enliven their day-to-day existences. In order to make money while he waits for art school to begin, Bob advertises himself as a handyman. A wide range of callers respond to his claim of “WHATEVER’S WRONG I CAN FIX IT!” Many of his clients seem beyond help, like a desperate, abandoned housewife with a filthy home and kids that won’t mind, and a gay midwesterner whose teenage lover is dying of AIDS. Their spirits are torn and empty; these folks need someone who can do more than patch holes and fix leaky sinks.
At first meeting, Bob might seem like an unlikely candidate, even though from the framework See uses to tell the story we know that by the year 2027, Bob’s artwork and his spiritual message will gain enough recognition to be the focus of scholarly work and a Guggenheim fellowship application; in fact, his work will be so compelling that he develops a following, according to the fellowship application, of disciples known as “Los Testigos.”
Yet all that is in Bob’s future. When we first meet him flying to Paris to study art and then promptly returning to Los Angeles because he can’t stand it, Bob is just another pot-smoking, sexually promiscuous, directionless artist trying to find himself in L.A. Yet, through his common-sense friendliness, his get-down-to-business-and-solve-the-problem attitude, his paintings that connect art to real-life problems, and his willingness to dig in and clean up accumulated trash, filth, dirty laundry, soiled bed sheets, and piled-up dishes, Bob makes friends, changes lives, and shows us that even in our postmodern, high-tech, on-line, consumer society, it is still possible for people to show compassion and make a difference. Bob uses his intuition and spiritual energy — and his flashy, cosmic, bright, futuristic paintings — to show us there is life worth living that is more important than the hazy, bleak predictions we are getting used to hearing as the Year 2000 approaches.
See uses wit, talent and style (and she has fun, too) to create this deceptively simple tale about the complexities of being human and connecting with others. Some might see this as a departure from her earlier work, especially from Golden Days and its apocalyptic vision. But her search for spiritual connections and her insightful explorations of the complex relationships between art and life have been present all along. Certainly, she demonstrates a concern for them in many of her other novels and in her memoir, Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America. The Handyman shares with her earlier work the sense that life is simply too short to not find time to have fun, even if you are sitting among piles of dirty dishes, soiled diapers, broken promises, and lost chances.
The delicacy and precision with which See treats the details of contemporary life in California are here, too, as we follow Bob through the streets on L.A. Her book serves as a call to action: instead of surfing the web, perfecting our PowerPoint computer presentation skills, or staring at MTV, a visit from the handyman might be just what we need.Reading Group Guide (with discussion questions)