READJUSTMENT to civilian life has five million variations, even allowing for a few repetitions, and it would be hard to say that any one case is not typical. MacKinlay Kantor, an old hand at mixing a good story with liberal quantities of emotion, has written a novel (shall we just forget about its being in “verse"?) of the troubles three men come home to. Former Sergeant Al Stephenson, fortyish, a banker; former Lieutenant Fred Derry, Air Corps, fifteen years younger and from the other side of the tracks; and Homer Wermels, former sailor, still younger, catch a plane ride home together upon being discharged. In Boone City before the war they would never have known one another. This story follows their separate but increasingly interwoven lives in a Midwestern city of a hundred thousand people.
Teaching tight-faced, anxious veterans in college, as I do, and talking and writing to many friends in the services, I know something of what they’re up against personally, financially, emotionally. Mr. Kantor has seen them on active duty, having been there himself as a war correspondent; this means that he knows the beginnings of the human problems all these men bring home. It must also mean that he knew somewhere the men, or men like them, that he chose for his three chief characters. One never doubts that.
Coincidence plays with a heavy hand over the keyboard of probability in this book, coming down with some really crashing chords at the end. But Mr. Kantor knows how to tell a good story, how to make the reader want it to come out right, how to let him think it’s going to, then snatch the happy ending out of his mouth for a few more pages, then gently and sweetly feed it. back scene by scene in the closing chapter.
A1 Stephenson, the most mature and most plausible figure, finds it impossible to be the small-loans bank officer under the thumbs of older men, and blows his top. Extraheavy chord of coincidence here: he blows at the very second Fred is about to hold up the bank, sees Fred, asks him to come out and have a good long talk. Fred has fallen in love with Al’s daughter Peggy, too. Al forms a partnership in the nursery business with former Marine John Novak, to whom he had made a partly unsecured loan: the G.I. Bill wasn’t enough in the eyes of the bank’s Board. Novak, a minor character, is believable. That part of the workings of the story I liked, and thought it probable and typical.
Fred Derry had much to get rid of—a cheap girl he should not have married, a drugstore job he need not have come back to, and a feeling of inferiority he had really outgrown; but he made it. And there is Homer Wermels. spastic, half-paralyzed by wounds, a simple, good boy when he left home, a drooling, staggering almost-idiot now. The girl next door makes the quietest and most admirable effort in this story, and I believe in it, in story and real life.
MacKinlay Kantor’s overseas experience has given him rich human and technical experience. He has brought home from the wars a full notebook, and he has written out of it an absorbing and often moving story. It is not an epic. There is too much more to be said, and no one person knows it. As for novels in verse, not even E. A. Robinson thought of calling Tristram anything but a poem.
Recently, a well-adjusted, uncomplicated, bright-eyed, tweed-trousered young former sergeant back on his own college campus after three years, said, “I’m reveling in all this,” and I told him he was the man who could and should. But there’s no one like him in Kantor’s novel, and there ought to be. Men just home from the services aren’t all problems, to themselves or to society; a great many come home a little older, much wiser, and quite ready and able to live a civilian life.