It’s the middle of the Reagan administration, and Ken Kesey hasn't
published a novel in more than twenty years. And many probably felt
he never would again. These two decades had taken a toll on the
celebrated author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and
Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). He had been arrested for
marijuana possession in 1965, and after a misguided attempt to fool
the police—involving a faked suicide note and an escape to Mexico—
served five months in jail. But Kesey did much more than inhale during
these years. He got so caught up in LSD and the 1960s drug culture
that the esteemed author became far better
known for acid trips than manuscripts. Run-
ning away from the spotlight, he retired to his
family farm in Oregon, a retreat from the world
while he was still in his early 30s. But the
counterculture came to Kesey, and a career that
had first blossomed in a writing seminar at
Stanford looked like it would peter out amidst
drugs, alcohol and an occasional cattle-branding
in the Willamette Valley.
But even if Kesey hadn't written a book during
this period, he had appeared in some high-
profile books. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-
Aid Acid Test (1968), a spirited account of
Kesey's 'alternative lifestyle' with his compadres the Merry Pranksters,
remains even today the most engaging and readable account of hippie
rebellion. Kesey also shows up in Hunter Thompson's Hell’s Angels
(1966), and was commemorated in poetry by Allen Ginsberg (see
Ginsberg's "First Party At Ken Kesey's With Hell's Angels" from 1965).
Kesey, as depicted in these widely-read works, was a poster boy for
mind-altering substances, a wild man and thrill-seeker who, many surmised,
had probably burnt out his considerable talent along with the majority of
his brain cells.
But those who had written off Kesey the writer learned, at a surprisingly
late date, that Kesey had hardly written off his own writing. Around the
time of his 50th birthday, Kesey decided the moment had come for him to
release another novel. His publisher Viking clearly wanted to capitalize
on the fame of their great-author-turned-cultural-icon. But could Kesey
deliver the goods in the aftermath of all this hearty partying? Or was he
just one more burnt-out case, too fried to know that he should pack up
the typewriter for good?
The folks at Viking must have been even more skeptical when Kesey
started talking about writing a "novel in a box." Different parts of the
book would be printed in separate pamphlets, and these would all be
packaged in a cardboard container. "They could be read in any order,"
Kesey explained, "and as I wrote more I would send those pamphlets to
people who bought the box." Kesey eventually abandoned the box
concept, but the idea persists in the name of the book that finally
appeared in 1986: Demon Box.
The box was now a metaphor instead of a packaging a concept. The
title figures at two key junctures of the book—where it serves both as a
symbolic alternative to Freud's model of the psyche, and as a spring-
board for Kesey's surprisingly harsh criticism of his own life and times.
At the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Devlin E. Deboree (the stand-in for
Kesey in the novel) encounters Dr. Klaus Woofner, based on 'Gestalt
therapy' psychiatrist Fritz Perls. In a hot tub, surrounded by his naked
admirers, Perls scrawls a drawing of a divided box on the back of a
check, the image representing physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s
"demon in a box"—Maxwell’s attempt to undermine the Second Law
of Thermodynamics. In the physicist's thought experiment, a demon
in the box sorts through hot and cold molecules, resisting entropy and
imposing order. Perls uses this image as a symbol of our own
consciousness, with the demon now trying to sort out right from wrong,
good from bad. But, as with Maxwell’s demon, the one in our head is
engaged on an impossible task, and exacts his revenge on us, his
I won't try to summarize the thrust of Kesey's fifty page outline of his
own encounter with Perls, and his assessment of the demon in his own
box—this is the highlight of the book, in my opinion, and deserves to be
savored in its entirety. Suffice it to say that Perls saves his most savage
scorn for those who attempt to subdue the demon with chemicals. This
story would be powerful under any circumstances, but coming from the
alter ego of the famous evangelist for LSD, it is especially sobering.
And 'sobering' may be more than a metaphor here.
This powerful conclusion to Demon Box, as well as the gritty opening,
based on Kesey's time in jail, could serve as beginning and end of a
masterful autobiographical novel. But somewhere in-between, Kesey
loses his ability to control his subject. He can't decide whether he wants
to write a coherent novel, offer a collection of essays, provide tributes to
the dearly departed (John Lennon, Neal Cassady), write a different novel
in the voice of 'Grandma Whittier', or just riff on whatever subject comes
to hand—Chinese philosophy, long-distance running, the Ali-Foreman
fight, the Great Pyramid of Giza, or the decline of downtown Berkeley, to
cite a few examples.
Don’t get me wrong. Demon Box is hardly a failure. All that peyote,
pot, psilocybin, acid, mescaline, nitrous oxide, hashish, booze, and
other miscellaneous brain-benders, did not destroy Kesey's prose style.
In his 50s, he could still write poetic phrases, startling sentences and
memorable scenes. And his worldview has matured and taken on a
valuable degree of self-criticism and self-reflection less apparent in
Kesey's landmark novels from the 1960s. These are considerable
achievements. But, taken as a whole, Demon Box is a devil of a mess,
content overwhelming form at every step of the game. The whole, in this
instance, is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. Kesey's publisher
should have stuck with the "pamphlets in a box" concept. At least with a
nice container, the diverse texts would have had something to hold them
As it stands, you could read these chapters in any order, pick and
choose as you see fit, or leave out some altogether. Those who come
to Kesey seeking the oracle of the counter-culture will gravitate to the
tales of Hell's Angels and hippies, drugs and rock-and-roll in these
pages. Those who see Kesey as a back-to-nature man of the land will
prefer the stories of cattle-branding, bull-taming, and chores on the farm.
Those who admire Kesey the literary stylist will delight in the 'Grandma
Whitter' sections of the book—she's a character (in both senses of the
word) who deserves a novel of her own. And, finally, those who yearn for
the gonzo journalism of days past will laugh and cry at Kesey's antics on
location, covering unlikely events in different continents, and always
looking for a way to become part of the story himself.
So there's something for everyone here. But I can’t help wishing that
Kesey had spent those twenty years taking the ingredients of this one
book, and using them as a foundation for several books, both fiction
and non-fiction. Instead of offering us a fun, discursive, rambling book,
he might have delivered three or four masterworks.
Why didn't he do that? Why did he squeeze so many disparate items
into one book, and try to market it as a novel? Kesey mentioned in an
interview his fear that, after his death, editors would toss together his
unpublished writings willy-nilly in makeshift books that were not true to
his own vision. The concern was justified, as we can see from so many
posthumous travesties approved by heirs looking for another source of
royalty income. But Kesey's solution—to use up his scraps of writing
himself, and squeeze them into a single, lopsided book—may have been
worse than the initial problem. Demon Box proves that, as the adage
goes, the devil is in the details. Sad to say, the details in this box just
don’t square up.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published June 3, 2013.
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|Ken Kesey's Novel-in-a-Box
by Ted Gioia
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