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Demon Box by Ken Kesey (Viking: $17.95; 375 pp.)

August 31, 1986| Daniel Pyne | Payne, like Kesey, is a product of the Stanford Creative Writing program. He is currently writing and producing an iconoclastic new series about crimeside reporters for CBS Television

Kesey. Ken Kesey. Oh yeah. That prankster guy.

That balding hippie relic from the '60s, mercurial main character of Tom Wolfe's manic socio-psychedelic epic, "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." That brilliant young novelist who disgorged "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion" and then left us all just hanging there while he took a busload of pill-popping, dope-smoking hipsters and hooligans through the American Heartland to find not just meaning, but MEANING; madness and philosophy and crystal meth dissecting societal mores and conventional thought like a set of metaphysical Ginsu Knives--left us all just hanging there for about 20 years while he got busted, played fugitive, served time, and retreated to commune with the green hills of Oregon amid rumors that his mind was FRIED, man--that the acid had eaten away the immutable IT that made the writer, doused the flame--the illumination--leaving behind only the wunnerful wacky WEIRDO, the ol' plump celebrity shell, good for an occasional Esquire magazine whatnot, or a moody and nostalgic Rolling Stone profile.

Well, he's back, man.

Not the Day-Glo cartoon celebrity. Kesey the Writer. The mind is still sharp, the prose fluid and wise.

In his strong, lucid new collection of stories and essays, "Demon Box," Ken Kesey wrestles with those 20 years--with the contradictions that the last two decades have engendered--and with the terrifying possibility that he came away from his Great Quest empty-handed. Empty-handed! Or, at least, not with the kind of universal truths and solutions that Kesey seemed to be seeking:

"I know now that it isn't my fear that chains me back," Kesey writes in the essay from which the book derives its title. "It's the bleak and bottomless rock of failure, jutting remote from the black waters. Onto this hard rock, I am chained. The water pounds like blame itself. The air is thick with broken promises coming home to roost, flapping and clacking their beaks and circling down to give me the same as Prometheus got . . . worse ! Because I sailed up to those forbidden heights more times than he had--as many times as I could manage the means--but instead of a flagon of fire, the only thing I brought back was an empty cocktail glass . . . and I broke that."

Everything in "Demon Box" revolves around this theme--around the Promethean struggle of modern man to simply sort out and try to understand . No longer is Kesey the mad genius of the magic bus, with a potion for every pain; in the stories of "Demon Box," his thinly disguised alter-ego is Devlin Deboree, a middle-aged writer with a wife and kids and a farm with cows and ducks and a psychotic goat; a man with a celebrated past that is rapidly losing its context, and an uncertain future in what he has come to understand as the context of contradiction.

Deboree, like Kesey, is "afraid of running empty."

For Kesey, at least, this book is proof that he hasn't.

From the subtle, understated first-person narrative of the opening, in which Deboree is released from county jail and reflects on the many faces of Time, Kesey seems to be as much rediscovering his own creative powers as he is uncovering the simple, personal truths and realities that are the soul of this material.

Kesey is a fine writer, neither superficially trendy nor smugly stylish--one may tend to forget that Kesey of "Electric Kool-Aid" is colored by Wolfe's amphetamine prose; Kesey's own writing is spare and exacting, with a keen sense of the rhythms of both narrative and dialogue, and a perverse precision of character: "The Tranny Man's wife is younger than her husband, not much, a freshman in high school when he was a football-hero senior, at his best."

"She's never been at her best, although it isn't something she thinks about. She's a thoughtful person who doesn't think about things."

Through Deboree's eyes, we see a world that embraces its contradictions, from the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and the Great Wall of China, to the back pasture of his Oregon farm, and the lascivious trespasses of a promiscuous Angus bull. That these stories have autobiographical roots becomes unimportant; ultimately this isn't a book about Ken Kesey at all.

Perhaps "Demon Box" isn't the book that all the neo-pranksters and Kesey groupies and folks who care about that kind of thing have been keening for like some kind of literary Holy Grail. There are missteps, sputters and lapses; a section of goofy songs/verse (appropriately entitled "Demon Briefs & Dopey Ditties") smacks of self-indulgence, however harmless. But here is, it would seem from this collection of work, the profit of a gifted writer striving to regain his vision; to uncloud it, to refocus it.

"I do not have a cure for your problems . . ." says the mystical crippled shrink who tells the theory of the Demon Box--a divided mind made weary by the constant contradictions it must hold in balance. "I refuse to offer temporary solutions. . . . All I can do is bring you to your senses here, in the present."

It might as well be Kesey's line, because that's what the "Demon Box" offers: illumination.

Of course, this is an old role for the Merry Prankster. His original role. It's where he started, as a young Stanford creative writing fellow, banging out this timeless tale of mental hospital heroics. Illuminating.

"What'd this Lou Gehrig accomplish that was so dadgum great," Deboree's ailing father growls. "No matter how many times you make it all the way around the bases, you're still right back where you started--in the dirt." Yeah.

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