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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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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