How does an ordinary person become extraordinary? Carolyn See's novel The Handyman (Random House; $22.95) follows a young man through the summer of his transformation from unexceptional postgraduate layabout to celebrated twenty-first-century painter and cult hero. After an aborted attempt to enroll in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Robert Hampton lands in Los Angeles, where he becomes a doer of odd jobs. He encounters a (slightly incredible) number of the city's most unfortunate, hopeless people and, while failing to fix their appliances, manages to patch up their broken lives. The premise sounds hackneyed and excessively symbolic, but See pulls it off by playing it down; Hampton's metamorphosis comes as a series of mundane moments. See's writing is, as befits the subject, masterly, almost painterly, and colors the whole work. "Maybe you couldn't change the world," Hampton says, "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."