The Handyman

Ruth Henrich reviews 'The Handyman' by Carolyn See

Published March 12, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

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.

By Ruth Henrich

Ruth Henrich is a former associate managing editor of Salon.

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