Cover image for The handyman : a novel
The handyman : a novel
See, Carolyn.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [1999]

Physical Description:
220 pages ; 25 cm
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A twenty-eight-year-old aspiring painter, Bob Hampton is discouraged by his lack of artistic vision, drops out of art school, and sets out to earn money as a handyman, but he soon discovers his real talent lies in repairing the mixed-up lives of his clients.

Author Notes

Carolyn See was born Carolyn Penelope Laws in Pasadena, California on January 13, 1934. She received a bachelor's degree from California State University Los Angeles in 1957 and a doctorate in English from UCLA in 1962. She taught creative writing classes at Loyola Marymount University and at UCLA. Before she retired in 2004, she created a $100,000 endowment at UCLA, for the study of Southern California literature. She was also a regular book critic at the L.A. Times and the Washington Post

She wrote more than a dozen books including the novels Rhine Maidens, Golden Days, and There Will Never Be Another You. With John Espey and Lisa See, she co-wrote two novels under the pseudonym Monica Highland: Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road. They also wrote a nonfiction book about vintage postcards entitled Greetings from Southern California. In 1995, See wrote a memoir entitled Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America. She also wrote a guidebook for beginning writers entitled Making a Literary Life. She received the L.A. Times Book Prize's Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement in 1993. She died of cancer on July 13, 2016 at the age of 82.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This charming novel from a writer with a growing readership revolves around an interesting premise: the time is 2027, and a man named Peter Laue is applying for a grant to study the work of artist Robert Hampton, who is internationally recognized as a major talent. Then we go back in time to learn the story of Hampton's life, in his own words, and this forms the meat of the novel. That Hampton became famous seems a great irony, given what we read about him before his ascent. After graduating from college, he went to Paris to enroll in art school, but the experiment quickly went sour, and he returned to his hometown of L.A. Once home, he took a job as a self-employed handyman. He built up a clientele of customers, but he was more often called to help with their private lives than to fix things around their houses--in other words, he functioned more or less as a social worker, his most poignant "case" being the care of a teenager with AIDS. Hampton is such a likable person that the reader applauds, all the way through the book, the fact that he is destined to become famous. And the cast of characters supporting him is just as human and beguiling as he. The result is a novel of compelling drive and great warmth. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a surprising about-face from the apocalypse she predicted in Golden Days, See begins this vibrant and provocative novel with a hopeful vision of a more spiritually atuned, less venal California in the 21st century, and with a positive spin on the role of an artist in transforming society. Bob Hampton is an enormously talented artist whose works convey a mystic view of people living harmoniously with the natural world. In flashbacks from 2027, we discover that the nucleus of his mythic creations, called Los Testigos (the witnesses) and described as a fusion of the ordinary and the divine, is largely created one summer in the late 1990s, when Bob is a floundering 28-year-old, verging on panic because he can't find his artistic identity. In desperation, he sets himself up as a handyman in the L.A. area, operating out of a group home that he shares with other grungy and equally directionless young people. His clients turn out to be needful of more than carpentry repair; each one is suffering marital turmoil or debilitating depression, and Bob becomes an unwitting St. Francis who heals injured psyches and salvages messed-up lives. Without specific intent, he set off chain reactions that bring all his new friends together, in love and salvation. And in each situation he creates vibrant futuristic art to fill a specific need in his clients' lives. One of the unexpected benefits of Bob's handyman summer is the opportunity to hop into bed with nearly every woman he encounters; See writes these scenes with verve and erotic humor. In fact, she has never before created a male character who is so alive on the page; slightly flaky, casually profane, beer-drinking and pot-smoking Bob is the epitome of the guileless person in search of his destiny. This is difficult in 1990s California, where the sun puts a pretty shine on spiritual emptiness and the soul-shrinking excesses of a consumer society. With deft narrative pacing, See follows a scene of slapstick domestic chaos with a searing portrayal of a young man dying of AIDS. In a compulsively readable narrative, she conveys a philosophy of life for the Y2K and beyond: after the millennium, maybe we will make dynamic choices that tap into cosmic energy, and accept the presence of the miraculous and the divine. Witty, insightful and compassionate, this book has a beguiling message and mainstream appeal. Author tour; movie rights to Warner Bros. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 divorcées, 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, LJ 9/15/91) has written a feel-good novel reminiscent of the best work of Allison Lurie with a dollop of Ann Tyler; it's been bought by Warner Brothers. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/98.]‘Jo Manning, Univ. of Miami, Coral Gables, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



In May of 1996 I flew to Paris from Los Angeles, 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.) I came out of the church into the cobblestone yard and looked over to my left, at the café where Sartre and de Beauvoir had eaten lunch every day, if you could believe the guidebooks. I walked off on a diagonal to my right, toward a café that to my knowledge had no reputation at all. I sat down, ordered a Croque Monsieur, a salade des tomates, and a glass of red wine. Not quite what I expected, because there was a red-faced Irishman stuffing down a pair of fried eggs right next to me, telling a story about the computer company he worked for and how he'd just come in from Hong Kong the night before and how he'd be damned if he'd take the company house out in the banlieues, he'd live in the city or nowhere. On my other side, an American woman in a tight suit explained to someone who looked a lot like her mom that the French were terrific pill poppers, and that she, the daughter, was terribly disappointed that her mother had let herself go, because how could she introduce her to François, when she was looking like that? Everyone I saw had someone to talk to; everyone had a friend. Everyone had somewhere to go. Everyone had a plan. I paid my check and walked back to the hotel. My room faced away from the sun and smelled of mildew and smoke. I pulled off my clothes, got under the covers, and slept. When I woke up, it was the next morning. I ordered coffee and croissants and the maid brought them up. I sat in bed and ate and began to feel terrible. I got ready for the voices that would be rolling by soon, and sure enough, here they came: my dad, the redneck Texan carpenter who'd taken off when I was fifteen. "You're gonna be a what? An artist? Gimme a break, Bob!" My mom, sitting alone in her apartment down on Virgil: "That's fine for now, when you're still young, but pretty soon life is going to catch up with you. You can't go on living for yourself and expect to get away with it." Living for myself. Man, she was convinced of it. My old professors: "Hampton, pretty good. No, a B1 is a good grade, especially at UCLA. No, I'm not going to change it. No, I can't tell you what's 'wrong' with the painting! It's just not A work. I know A work when I see it, and I don't see it here. No, I can't tell you what to do. I can tell you how to get a B, but no one can tell you how to get an A. If I could, we'd all be out on a yacht spending our millions." Or, "You'd make a fine teacher, Hampton." Or, "Disney needs animators. You work very rapidly and you're good with detail." Or, "Did you ever think of special effects? You've got a real craftsman's eye. We're living in the special-effects capital of the world, remember." But that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to knock them out. I wanted to knock their socks off. I wanted to change their lives through my art. Yeah, well. 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 the best 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?" "Forty-two, why?" 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. Excerpted from The Handyman: A Novel by Carolyn See All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.