After 30 years, Ken Kesey pens a futuristic novel that is worth the wait

August 23, 1992|By Madison Smartt Bell

SAILOR SONG.

Ken Kesey.

Viking.

471 pages. $23.50.

If an author goes for 30 years without writing a novel the most logical prediction might be that he's not going to write another. Ken Kesey, who put his toe back in the water a couple of years ago by masterminding the O.U. Levon collaboration "Caverns," has soundly defeated that expectation with "Sailor Song." The next question is, how could any novel live up to three decades of anticipation?

"Sailor Song" is a mildly futuristic book, set just past the turn of the 21st century, in the not-so-dour Alaskan fishing village of Kuinak. Deep in the background, the world has kept on going to hell but not that quickly or completely. The environment has got worse and worse, temperatures are climbing sharply, pollution is worse than ever before. All psycho-active plants have been killed by genetic recombinants, but in compensation there are new synthetic drugs, especially a weird tea called scoot. The fish are further out to sea, but there still are some. And, even in Kuinak, it's still a highly technological society (Mr. Kesey has had a good time dreaming up wish-fulfillingly automated fishing boats); the real Apocalypse is yet to come.

Kuinak, meanwhile, is not immune from the vicissitudes of a tattered world -- it's the site of a colossal tire dump, for one thing -- but nature has survived there, and Mr. Kesey, as readers may remember from "Sometimes a Great Notion," his last novel, writes beautifully about nature. As for human inhabitants, there are the DEAPs (an acronym for Descendants of Early Aboriginal Peoples), a host of semi-feral "fish-kids" who live in the dump, and a civic organization called the Underdogs, whose membership includes humans and their dogs on an equal footing. It's a likely retreat for Isaac Sallas, a former environmental terrorist once famous as the Bakatcha Bandit, along with many more anomalous characters who make up a cast of dozens.

There is no single plot to "Sailor Song," which is instead a mosaic of subplots, all equally important, most of which start when Kuinak is invaded by a film crew that has come to make a movie of a bogus Inuit folk tale called "Shoola and the Sea Lion." Nick Levertov, leader of the movie group, is pursuing a personal vendetta against Ike Sallas and several others in the community, while behind him is a larger scheme to take over the town for a giant theme park, a plausible move at a time when the average temperature in New York City is 112 degrees. The Shoola story itself (included in its entirety) provides Mr. Kesey with the mirror for some prankish reflections on gift-bringers and tale-bearers who are not what they seem.

The problem with any novel with so many characters and plot complications is that it usually has to end in a huge circus. Mr. Kesey has pre-empted this difficulty by keeping frenzied activity going on in several rings all the way through. He seems to have TTC tried to follow every fork in the plot trail, gone yapping after every tangent like an underdog in good standing, and yet the net result is remarkably free of the smell of self-indulgence. He yanks his plot strings a little abruptly at times, but despite the obvious contrivances, each antic episode is wonderfully entertaining. And in the end, a surprise after all, the strands of plot are blown away as if they were so much confetti.

This book must have been prodigious fun to write, and it is surely great fun to read, but not without its thread of seriousness. Behind thecarnival atmosphere, Mr. Kesey is concerned as he ever was about the replacement of the American Dream by the American Delusion: "Stripped and cleaned and simplified, then blown up big as a house, so the actual bulk of the thing diminished it, belittled it, so the treasure that had once been alluring and just out of reach, else what's heaven for? had been devalued until those still drawn by the old allure were forced to stretch down, bend over, cramp the back and humble the neck, to reach for the prize where it lay, like a diamond dropped in s, like a star knocked into the mud -- so that even victory was a debasement." And the problem is larger than our society's knocking up against its boundaries; it has become (in the woefully familiar phrase) the end of nature. As Ike says, quoting Thomas Paine, "There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did." Behind the sheer good fun of it, this book redirects that message, with considerable urgency.

"Sailor Song" lets the old Merry Prankster show more than one of his faces, suggests that he has quite a store of magic still up his voluminous sleeves. It is just what we were looking for from Mr. Kesey, in the sense that it's completely unexpected. And yes, it is worth the 30-year wait.

Mr. Bell is the author of two collections of short stories and six novels, the most recent being "Doctor Sleep." He lives in Baltimore.

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