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.