May 4, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
Random House, 1999, $22.95.
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.