DEMON BOX

An elegiac semi-fiction composed of short takes and longer reprints from Rolling Stone, Esquire and Kesey's own magazine, Spit in the Ocean, now orchestrated into a large work whose parts sing against each other and whose overriding theme is a magnificent dirge for the 60's. Demon Box is also a superb rounding out and bookend to all the works springing from Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). What Kerouac began Kesey has finished—and finished with great style and feeling. There are two or three Ken Keseys: the one who wrote two inspired novels (1962's marvelous One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and 1964's more daring Sometimes a Great Notion), and the one who shifted from literature to life and became a retired novelist/Oregon farmer. There is also the public Kesey, father of the Merry Pranksters, a celebrated bus-load of psychedelic rebels set on bringing America into the fourth dimension of lysergic acid, whose antics were chronicled in the pop-art prose of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It's the public Kesey we first meet here, being released from the San Marco (Cal.) County slammer after serving a six-month term for possession and cultivation of weed. This Kesey still has a prankster's aura, but that soon sours and fades, along with the famed psychedelic bus rotting on his farm. Here, Devlin E. Deboree, Kesey's alter ego, seems somewhere between a squire and a farmer. Like Henry Miller, to whom Demon Box owes a large debt, he spends a lot of time fending off unwanted hippie visitors who regard him as a national monument to unfettered freedom. Most of these rancid travelers come away unhappy with their encounter, seeing their man as a power tripper and guru gone rotten. Says one poisonous dropout, "I never read Sometimes a Cuckoo Nest but I saw the flick." Part of the time Deboree is away, on a trip to Mexico, or on a writing jaunt for Rolling Stone, searching for the riddle of the pyramids in Cairo, of marathon running to the Great Wall of China, or of madness at a psychiatrists' convention in Disney World. A highlight, however, is Kesey's great prose poem to the lost faces of the 60's ("Hello faces. Come back. Come on back all of you even LBJ with your Texas cheeks eroded by compromises come back. Khrushchev, fearless beyond peasant ignorance, healthy beside Eisenhower, come back both of you. James Dean all picked apart and Tab Hunter all put together. Michael Rennie in your silver suit the day the earth stood still for peace, come back all of you. . .").

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1986

ISBN: 0140085300

Page Count: 412

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1986

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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