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Kesey: Alive and Well and . . .

October 05, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN

NEW YORK — Who was that Uncle Sam-like character cavorting about the stage at Town Hall here not long ago? Well, said Ken Kesey, thoroughly dispelling any possibility that he is not still Kesey after all these years, this particular red-white-and-blue persona--a.k.a "Uncle Sambozo"--was "born after 62 hours of watching the Fourth of July . . . the result of unspeakable congress between the Statue of Liberty and the Fuji blimp." Red rose in the lapel of his "$55 Korean suit, I'll have you know," Kesey captivated an audience that clearly shared his unflagging belief that the '60s will never die. There was the legendary survivor/iconoclast, wearing funny hats, smoking imaginary joints and, quoting liberally from the Beatles, extolling the virtues of "heads across the water." Mostly, backed by his psychedelic Thunder Machine Band, Kesey read from "Demon Box" (Viking), his first major book in more than 20 years. Challenging both public and private demons, the collection of essays and short stories is dedicated to Kesey's son Jed. Ever since the 18-year-old (buried on Kesey's farm in Oregon) died two years ago in an automobile accident, Kesey has made it a point to write to parents he reads or hears of who have lost children. There was no talk of such matters, however, in Kesey's appearance here. What he did say was that he was "sending shivers through the publishing industry" by threatening to send his long-awaited novel about Alaska directly past the publishers and "straight into video." Said Kesey, "I mean Chekhov, if he were here, he'd be using video." One sober note did arise when someone asked Kesey about the late poet/novelist Richard Brautigan. "He was a very sweet and wonderful man, and we lost him and that's too bad," Kesey said. "Everyone that I've seen die has died from being alone, from aloneness. Let's keep better track of each other."

NO REGRETS: Les Brown provided the music and Red Buttons the comic monologue as Norman Lear assembled several hundred friends under a Brentwood big top last month to celebrate Sally Quinn, author of "Regrets Only" (Simon & Schuster) and husband Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post. "Was that $600,000, Sally?" Buttons asked, alluding to paperback sales made the day of the bash. Actually, informed sources now report, the sex-and-politics best-seller brought a little more than that.

"FREEDOM ALERT": In a similar vein, the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the American Library Assn. has issued a "call to arms" alerting librarians to the "potential chilling effect" of the report of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography on "the free flow of ideas." The group faulted the commission's conduct and conclusions as "flawed by an inordinate number" of anti-pornography witnesses, visual materials "skewed to the very violent and extremely degrading" and "an undemonstrated casual link of sexually explicit materials with sexual crime." Most damaging, in the view of the committee, is the report's potential for "heightening an already threatening pro-censorship climate" in the United States.

THE COLOR OF SUCCESS: Touted widely as "another 'Color Purple,' " Sherley Anne Williams' "Dessa Rose" (William Morrow) was already in its third printing within one month of publication. Paperback rights to the San Diego novelist's first book have been sold to Berkley for $100,000, reports Williams' agent, Sandra Dijkstra, and film rights to United Artists for an Irwin Winkler production with screenplay by Williams.

NOW WHAT? In recent days, Bertelsmann, the German publishing giant which owns Bantam, the American mass-market paperback house, has acquired Doubleday, a hardcover publisher which just a few years ago acquired Dell, another mass-market paperback publisher. At that time, Dell had a hardcover imprint of its own, Dial, which Doubleday eventually retired. Will Bertelsmann retire the large and well-established Dell paperback line in favor of Bantam? Not likely, though not inconceivable. But there is another duplication in the merger: that of Doubleday's huge hardcover output with Bantam's small, recently created hardcover line. Bantam hardcover would seem to be the likely candidate for elimination, but its success with books like "Iacocca" and "Yeager" has been phenomenal.

Similar rearrangements of chairs may be under way a few stops south on the Manhattan subway. British-owned Penguin has just acquired New American Library, another mass-market paperback publisher. But Penguin, well-known for its trade (bookstore-sold) paperbacks as distinct from the mass-market (drugstore-sold, airport-sold, etc.) paperbacks which NAL relies on, also owns the distinguished hardcover publisher Viking. And NAL acquired, not long ago, a complementary hardcover house, E. P. Dutton. Will Penguin keep both Dutton and Viking at the status quo?

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