BOOK REVIEW / In defence of America's soul: Sailor song by Ken Kesey: Black Swan pounds 6.99

'TUNE IN, turn on, drop out', advises the press release accompanying Ken Kesey's first novel in 25 years. But don't be misled. While there's quite a bit of drug abuse in this book, Kesey isn't stuck in the Sixties. Sailor Song is concerned with child abuse (the book's villain turns out to be the product of his mother and her father), with ethnicity and - despite its vast, tree-pulping 600 pages - with environmentalism.

Swollen and meandering, the book is short on narrative thrust. It has Spielberg-meets-Bob Dylan set-pieces, patches of Shakespearian rhetorical intensity, and some great gags (some hideous ones too: how about 'parsley, sage, rosemary and Newsweek'?). But the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. And whereas One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey's most celebrated novel, had memorable images - that pat of butter leaving a trail like a yellow slug as it slides down a wall - Sailor Song has little of such durability. Its only comparable image is of a man gliding 'away through the chatting clots of townspeople like an eel through kelp'. (The eel returns, and Kesey treats us to a lecture on it

a la Waterland.)

Is there a plot? Sort of. We are in Kuinak, Alaska, a worn-out fishing village where Ike Sallas, a former ecological terrorist, is trying to live the quiet life. Trying but not succeeding, because a movie crew is coming to town to make a big-money version of an Eskimo kiddies-classic, Shoola and the Sea Lion. And the movie producer has bigger plans. He wants to turn Kuinak into a heritage theme-park. When Ike gets wind of this he is none too happy. And thus begins his defence of the soul of America.

Ken Kesey is engaged in a similar battle: he's out to defend the soul of The Novel. He wants to save it from the phoney frontages of the post-modern, and to offer a vision of the real world. His most moving passage, about a near- epiphanic animal wail, neatly parallels one's experience of the book: 'The effect seemed somewhat burlesque at first, self-mocking and more than a little shallow, but as the howling lifted there were heard notes of true pathos beneath the parody, of honest achings and deep animal despair being given throat, and the self-consciousness and the burlesque melted, and the shallow was swept into the deep.'

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