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'I Can See Clearly Now' by Brendan Halpin

In the time it takes a character to roll a joint, you get the irony behind the title of "I Can See Clearly Now," Brendan Halpin's novel about young musicians working in a haze of hormones and pot smoke in New York.

It's 1972 and ATN, a television network, has just been spanked by Congress for the glaring lack of educational programming in its weekend children's lineup. The suits in ATN's executive suite respond with "Pop Goes the Classroom," a series of three-minute songs about history, arithmetic, science and grammar, to be aired between cartoons.

This is "Sesame Street" meets "Schoolhouse Rock," and if the tunes are catchy enough, the kids glued to the boob tube might actually learn something.

With that in mind, ATN hires Pamela Sanchez, a hippie folk singer with a waning career, to play den mother to four twentysomething songwriters. Pamela quickly turns the basement recording studio of "Pop Goes the Classroom" into a crash pad, complete with scarves, scented candles and an endless supply of brown rice.

"Of course," she says, "I know that my creativity is helped along by the use of mind-expanding substances. Natural ones, anyway. . . . In the kitchen, you'll find a Chock Full o' Nuts coffee can that does not contain coffee. You should help yourself to its contents whenever it feels like the right thing to do."

This being the Age of Aquarius, getting ripped on the pot in that coffee can is precisely the right thing to do, and ATN's four wannabe rock stars get down to business.

There's Levon, former bass player for the Supersonic Funkateers, whose father is impatient for him to become one of the first black engineers at a prestigious firm.

Sarah, a mousy girl with a teaching degree, is so insecure that the prospect of playing during open mic night at the local coffee house makes her physically ill.

Pete, a kid from the Midwest, was just days away from giving up his musical dreams when he landed the "Pop Goes the Classroom" job.

Julie, a sharp-tempered WASP-y blond, is a successful jingle writer for an ad firm.

Add Dingo Donovan, a middle-aged drummer hired to produce the recordings, and you've got a lot of characters to keep track of.

Halpin is the author of seven previous books, including well-received memoirs about his work as a schoolteacher and his late wife's battle with cancer. Several of his novels are set in the world of music, including "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," about two people whose songwriting exes lift them to unwanted fame -- and infamy -- in post-breakup ballads that become hits.

With "I Can See Clearly Now," he ups the ante by narrating the story from five points of view. Everyone but Pamela gets chapters told from his or her perspective.

Unfortunately, that's where things break down. Sarah and Pete form the novel's core love story, but as characters they're somewhat clunky. She likes him. He likes her. They write songs together and smoke a lot of pot. But wires get crossed and the lovers retreat.

Here's Pete, anguished about one of their breakups: "Suddenly, his insides were a volcano of grief, and there, on the sidewalk, they began to erupt as big sobs forced themselves up from his stomach and out of his mouth."

It would be easier to believe in such a moment of crisis if the writing offered more support.

Levon fares a little better. But it's Julie -- thanks to some wonderful scenes that showcase her formidable gift for passive-aggressive corporate warfare -- who becomes the book's most vivid character.

Perhaps Halpin's most difficult task is that, in a novel about songwriters, he has no choice but to offer up some songs. And not just any songs: The book begins 35 years after "Pop Goes the Classroom's" heyday, when the show and its music ("Nine's Magic Multiples," "Funky Solar System") have become ageless classics.

A-list celebrities are fighting to be part of the commemorative DVD.

And yet, with lyrics such as "And still today when votes are cast / We throw off the shackles of the past," in a song about the American Revolution, the legend thing is a tough sell.

Or maybe, as a baffled marketing executive says of "Pop Goes the Classroom's" enduring popularity, it's a '70s thing.

De Turenne is a Los Angeles writer and blogger.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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