A Sailor Song

Whether as the protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s quintessential book of ’60s reportage The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or as the author of the quintessential ’60s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey has always had a weakness for the heroic gesture—the more futile and self-destructive the better. Think of Randall P. McMurphy, the virile, two- fisted individualist (played by Jack Nicholson in the movie version of Cuckoo’s Nest) smashing his fist through the protective glass of the nurse’s station at the psychiatric hospital where he’d been wrongly committed in order to retrieve his cigarettes. Even at the cost of a frontal lobotomy, you see, a man wants to feel like a man.

So here we are well into what he calls the ”Nasty ’90s,” and Kesey comes along with his first novel in 28 years. And guess what? The man’s still peddling the same Ayn Rand-meets-the Grateful Dead worldview, still giving us hairy-chested, whiskey-drinking, ”scoot”-tooting heroes bashing into immovable objects and refusing to compromise their manly ideals. Except now it’s no longer Kesey’s native Oregon and the closing of the frontier that worry him, it’s Alaska and the End of the World. ”From Alaska there’s no place left to go the Final Frontier as far as this sick old ball game goes. Top of the ninth.”

As Sailor Song opens, the eco-guerrillas of the ’90s have already failed. Summer temperatures in Washington, D.C., reach 119 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cherry trees have died. Still worse, genetic engineering has taken the kick out of even homegrown dope, and a U.N.-sponsored AIDS vaccine had the unanticipated effect of wiping out male ardor as well as the disease. The national credo has become ”The Dumb Is Always Righter Than the Smart Because There’s More of Us,” and the last Real Man in the known world lives on the edge of the wilderness in a beat-up trailer near Kuinak, Alaska.

Ike Sallas is his name, ”the Greek-god guy with the Elvis Presley eyes.” The Bakatcha Bandit, Ike used to be called back in his days as an eco-terrorist, ”no starry-eyed tree-hugger, or toothy politician trying to get just the right sound-bite on the evening news. Ike Sallas was a warrior with battle scars and stripes.” Well, you get the picture. Evangelists say the world will end in fire, but Ike’s pal Billy ”the Squid” Bellisarius, scoot dealer and self- taught genius, predicts a new ice age commencing just any day now.

As if that weren’t bad enough, a plague of Hollywood geeks has sailed into Kuinak Bay in a seagoing movie studio, ostensibly to film the children’s classic Shoola and the Sea Lion, but with a secret plan to turn the fishing village into a theme park as well. Will Ike succeed in rousing the populace? Or will he surrender his ideals to the ”hot little Eskimo Pie” who plays Shoola? Or both? And what’ll it be, fire or ice? Terminal boredom, more likely. An appallingly bad novel, windy, pretentious, and incompetently narrated-filled with more unresolved subplots than a half-dozen afternoon soap operas. If Kesey himself weren’t a cult figure of sorts, Sailor Song would probably not have been published. As it is, nobody’s done the man any favors. F

A Sailor Song
  • Book