In Post-WW II San Francisco, wounded servicemen struggle to heal their physical and emotional scars and find comfort in an often unkind world.
There is a standard (and rather annoying) convention that “historical fiction” refers to narratives set before 1900. That might have worked fine in 1940 or 1960 or even 1990. Today, though, this rule of thumb is more suffocating than useful. POET’S CAN’T SING is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Firmly set in its period, it captures the flavor of that particular moment–a time when public pride over a hard-won victory too often overshadowed the personal suffering of those who made this victory possible.
Earl, Brooks, and Ivory have all been left shattered by their war experience. They cross paths at a veterans’ hospital run by corrupt administrator Victor Mann and his psychotic orderly, Elroy. As Mann pretends not to notice, Elroy uses intimidation, blackmail, and violence to control the patients and staff. The only individuals not under his thumb are Nurse Stella Tate and Henry Akita, a Japanese-American former army medic, now an orderly. Despite Elroy’s menacing presence, Stella and Henry are determined to do what they can for the men under their care. They use Earl’s and Brooks’s musical talents to get these two blind men to both reengage with the world and to help other patients.
The author’s writing is top notch. He moves seamlessly from point-of-view to point-of-view and from past to present. We get to know his characters in all their messy humanity. Smith does a great job showing us the profound sadness that lives in the gap between what these men intended to be and what life and the war has made of them. We watch as they struggle to get better and be better in spite of their own self-destructive tendencies and the cruelty and incompetence of those around them.
There’s a good dose of humor to balance out the darker scenes. Which is good, because Elroy is like a cancer that spreads from chapter to chapter. I don’t know that I could have dealt with him all the way to the end if not for Earl and Brooks’s amusing interaction. As for the resolution, things take an interesting turn for the main character after their time at the hospital. Yet the question of whether such damaged souls as Earl, Brooks, and Ivory can ever learn to live with their scars and build decent, worthwhile lives is left open.
POETS CAN’T SING is an absorbing and emotional work of literary-historical fiction.