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

September 24, 1986|DIANNE DONOVAN | Donovan is books editor of the Chicago Tribune

PLEASANT HILL, Ore. — 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.

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