Disappointing Kesey novel

Demon Box, by Ken Kesey. New York: Viking. 375 pp. $17.95. Somewhere in the midst of this olio of Kesey pieces that no one would have missed, the author's great uncle Dicker is quoted: ``When you got nothin' to say, go ahead and say it.'' Kesey took this advice in ``Demon Box.''

It's just possible that longtime fans -- ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' still sells well in paperback -- may want to see what one of the '60s most popular writers has been up to over the last 20 silent years.

Kesey's alter ego in these pieces is Devlin Deboree, who travels in Mexico, in the Middle East, China, and around America. His adventures are not without some action, and there are flashes of cleverness. Through most of the rambling dialogue, a mood of profound regret is sustained. What he wants to believe, after years of waste, is that it's not too late to start again. Deboree, of course, is a writer, in awe of his own ability to neglect his potential. He gets that mood across, without doubt, but it's not enough to sustain a book.

Selling points? The book is autobiographical with the scent of gonzo journalism (plenty of name-dropping), drugs, and Western American nihilism. Kesey thinks we might be interested in his return from years of debilitating drug use. We might. But what he found out about life during those years is, in part, so fractious and generally so self-amused it's boring.

Kesey is locked in the voice of the '60s radical, a voice of chuckling nonsense and cross-eyed non sequiturs. What he pulls out for our amusement is not only not funny, it's embarrassing.

Kesey's problem is how to fight his way back onto the literary stage. The best advice is to stick to short magazine pieces and reportage. He should leave books alone until his hand is a little surer.

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