Author Ken Kesey at Home on Farm With 'Demon Box'

Donovan is books editor of the Chicago Tribune

This is Kesey country. Not the madcap, merry, scary, bend-your-mind landscape of Perry Lane in California of the '60s, but the rural fertility of the Willamette Valley.

Ken Kesey lives here with his family in the big red converted barn with the down-home Pennsylvania Dutch-style star on the front. There is a herd of cows in the pasture, but he has not turned gentleman farmer.

The Prankster Chief--author of two classics of modern fiction, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion," guru to a generation bent on degeneration--is 50 years old, with a new book, "Demon Box" (Viking, $17.95) just out and another novel in progress.

For the one-time cultural wunderkind (he was 27 when "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was published) and subcultural superhero, anything else he does in this life is fraught with risk. "Had I died 10 years ago," he said, "my place in literature would have been secure." But he didn't die, and he obviously feels a need to retain that arguably insecure place--though perhaps not in quite the same way others might.

"I've always liked that line from William Carlos Williams," he said with a smile. " 'If they give you lined paper, write the other way.' "

With "Demon Box," a compilation of his writing that spans a 20-year period, bringing together nonfiction articles, some transparently autobiographical pieces of fiction, and a folk tale or two, Kesey seems to be begging his readers to ask "What is it?"

"When Viking was bringing it out," he said, "they were desperate for something to call it. I told them, 'Don't call it anything .' It isn't a novel; it isn't an autobiography; it isn't journalism; I think of it as a box in which all this stuff goes."

At one point he called the work a "box novel," a new form of literature. "If I were to think of it as a (traditional) novel, I would have joined it together and had a gradual progression of thematic movement and character change through it, but I didn't want to do that."

Kesey explained that 10 years ago he developed the idea of publishing the pieces that now form "Demon Box" in pamphlet form, putting the pamphlets in a box and selling the box.

That way, "they could be read in any order, and as I wrote more I would send those pamphlets to people who bought the box."

Even Kesey admitted that that particular concept would have been a marketing nightmare, but he bristled at the idea that writers must dance to the tune played by publishers. "I say to my publishers, 'I will write for you, but I won't work for you.'

"They (the publishers) wanted me to do all these interviews and go on book signings," he said, warming to the subject like an evangelist heating up to talk about sin.

"I won't go on these shows--the 'Today Show,' 'Phil Donahue.' I said to them, 'I'll do my own show. Rent me a hall on Broadway.' "

Which is exactly what they did, for a sort of rock, roll and read show held this month.

But it isn't just the promotional side of the New York publishing world that offends the quintessentially independent Oregon sensibility. The very existence of "Demon Box" is somewhat a result of Kesey's fear that his unpublished works might someday appear without his supervision and without proper editorial care.

He cited the posthumous publication of Nelson Algren's "The Devil's Stocking," which he termed "embarrassing," and the recent publication--amid much ballyhoo over the pruning skills of Scribner's editor Tom Jenks--of Ernest Hemingway's "The Garden of Eden."

The Algren book, he said, "needed another year's work," and the Hemingway novel "should never have seen the light of day."

"I don't want to die and have some junior editor pick through my stuff. It's like freeze-framing a magician--then all the magic is gone from it."

And magic--even a kind of mysticism--is very important in Kesey's world. When asked just how autobiographical portions of "Demon Box" are--say, the parts about the writer and former druggie who lives on an Oregon farm with his family--his eyes get cold and his fleshy jaw seems to harden.

"I knew that would be the first question reporters ask," he said with a hint of disgust. "That's like asking a magician to show his trick. It's not nearly as autobiographical as it seems; half of that stuff didn't happen, but I want the reader to believe that it did. That's where the trick lies."

Still Does Magic

The kid who had a ventriloquist show in Eugene has grown into a writer who still does magic, a farmer who consults the I Ching on his word processor and tests out a visitor's aura with a "mood wand." Indeed, the trip to New York frequently sounded less like a book promotion than a trip down memory lane to Kesey's own personal magical mystical tour of the '60s.

It is a trip that is not easily forgotten. On the grounds of Kesey's farm stands a worn-out-looking bus that still sports the swirls of yellow, blue and red paint fading into gray that give it the look of a transport vehicle for some army of mad clowns. It is clearly the bus. The one you were either on or off in the 1960s odyssey of Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his onomatopoeic extravaganza, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Wolfe has called him "one of the truly charismatic personalities."

But Kesey emerged from his heyday as more than the wild man of the '60s whose devil-may-care brand of mysticism (not to mention his prodigious drug use) embodied what it was to be hip. More important, he emerged as a writer who could speak to all generations about the cares of humanity and the universality of experience in a voice that was clear and a prose that was stirring. His books are in print and are taught in college literature courses and sold in airports as well; the movies made from them still find audiences.

But there's a difference in Kesey these days. A feeling less of seriousness than of . . . well, of mortality. A sense of diurnal duties to be done and the importance of the family circle.

It's a change Kesey talked about slowly, thoughtfully, as he might a new-found faith. "The family has become very important to me over the years," he said. "Caring is the only thing that is important to me now."

Living at the farm are Faye, Kesey's wife of 30 years; his son, Zane, a student at nearby Lane Community College, and daughter Sunshine, a junior at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Another son, Jed, was killed in January, 1984, when a van carrying the University of Oregon wrestling team overturned on an icy road on the way to a match.

The effect of that tragedy on the author, whose second novel was woven through with family ties, was profound. "That first month, I was fevered and crazy," Kesey said. "I heard horns, a distinctly celestial sound."

He told Bill McGlaughlin, who was then director of the Eugene Symphony Orchestra, what he was hearing--"I went 'da da deee da' "--and McGlaughlin recognized the recurrent music in Kesey's brain as a Mahler Requiem, one Kesey swears he had never heard before.

"It's comforting," he said of the celestial music and of the presence of Jed's grave, a small mound fenced with wrought iron and grown over with weeds and daisies about a hundred yards from the barn's deck and its plate-glass sliding doors.

Just over the hill from the grave site is the pasture that was used for an August concert/reading, a practice run for the New York show. It featured Kesey, a ragtag band of musical neo-pranksters and the Thunder Machine, which appears to be composed of bicycle wheels, old car parts, a slideless trombone and a backwoods still.

A highlight of the show, Kesey explained as though discussing a standard component of any concert, is when Zane "pokes a shotgun through the opening (of the Thunder Machine) and shoots stars over the audience."

If Kesey's vision is realized, the pasture will be the site of much more as well. He hopes to stage annual concerts there--"Taj Mahal, Joan Baez, the Budapest Quartet. . . . We'd have an annual show out here, like a low-class Wolf Trap . . . Possum Trap!" he chuckled at the name, as if it had just occurred to him.

Kesey said his interest in music--especially in rock 'n' roll--has increased. He claimed that the literary tradition is virtually dead. "People aren't reading novels anymore. Novels just won't do it," he said. "A writer has to keep up with the times. Rock 'n' roll. Video. That's where the future is."

He talked about "Demon Box" as a "new form" of writing. He talked about producing a "video book" that would combine an author reading on camera with visual depictions of what would traditionally be descriptive passage. He talked about taking the "Demon Box" concert show to cities around the country. . . .

And finally he talked about that third novel, his work in progress, the one his readers are waiting for--the "Alaska book." He and Faye will move to Alaska so he can work on it, he said, once his current projects are out of the way.

Current projects--aside from the haying--include turning a screenplay about the Pendleton, Ore., roundup (a story he termed "your basic pulp Western") into a novel so it can be sold and turned back into a screenplay, and performing with the band at the state penitentiary in Salem. ("I like friendly and captive audiences.")

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