'Handyman' lacks the basic tools for life

THE HANDYMAN By Carolyn See Random House 221 pp., $22.95

I just finished reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to my daughter. Whenever we read a book, she asks, "Is this true or not?" It's a question that's forced me to move beyond the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy.

I know Mark Twain made up these often ridiculous adventures, but hearing the voice of this young narrator struggling to disentangle his friendship with Jim from his culture's racism, made me realize just how "true" it is.

It's a kind of truth-in-fiction that's missing from Carolyn See's new novel, "The Handyman." A critic for The Washington Post, See has a good ear for witty dialogue, and she knows how to throw quirky characters together for comic effect, but this is a novel with pretenses of moral profundity that it doesn't fulfill.

Bob Hampton, the hapless narrator, has spent five years trying to find himself, "but that search turned up nothing." Hoping to force his artistic impulses, he flies to Paris, but after a few aimless days, he returns to L.A. and confesses that he'll never be a great painter. "I was so totally and completely average," he laments. "I thought of myself in an art-house photo, dressed in a black turtleneck, blowing smoke rings, looking serious, and had to laugh. 'Robert, will you change out of that ridiculous sweater at once!' "

Resigned to follow a new path of practicality, he advertises himself as a general handyman. He doesn't have any tools or experience, but soon looney housewives all over L.A. answer his flyers. Bob discovers that he can change people's lives with good deeds in ways he never could with art.

Even if Anne Tyler hadn't written this story better last year ("A Patchwork Planet," Knopf), there are plenty of reasons to object. Bob's female clients are a parade of befuddled women who turn to him in desperation for the most basic domestic instructions. He teaches them how to clean house, feed the pets, discipline their kids, drive a car, and write checks. How easily their pathetic lives are fixed by this white knight in a T-shirt. If any male author dared to create such a collection of incompetent women, he'd be justifiably laughed off the bookshelf.

What's worse, Bob sleeps with almost all his clients. (At one house, he sleeps with a client's daughter, too.) We're meant to understand that Bob isn't taking advantage of these women; he's healing them, inspiring them, giving them confidence.

In case we don't get it, the story is framed by a pair of letters from the future that show Bob becomes the preeminent artist and mystic of the 21st century, a messianic character "obsessed with the miraculous, the divine."

Fixing up things around the house is a good deed, but it won't transform a life in disrepair. The relationships Bob waltzes through can't possibly bring the clarity and uplift to these people that the novel claims. What's more, Bob engages in the kind of casual sex that's at least risky and at most immoral.

Toward the end of the book, Bob thinks, "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. It couldn't hurt!"

But, in fact, as any real handyman will tell you, a superficial paint job does hurt. Weak wood can't be fixed with paint, and real moral anguish and domestic despair can't be whitewashed.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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