Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Merry Go-Round

By Scott Rogerson

JANUARY 11, 1999:  Maybe the LSD slowed him down, or maybe he has just been too busy playing the counter-culture hero for the past thirty years. But there was a time when Ken Kesey could flat out write, and his latest novel (with Ken Babbs) harkens back to the good old days when the master of characterization could make blood and viscera pour off a page.

Last Go Round stands out as Kesey's best work since Sometimes a Great Notion. Those who have followed the peculiar path of Ken Kesey know that this says a lot about the man's writing. Even though the guy has remained reasonably prolific over the years, just about everything he has written up until now has had about the literary shelf life of a banana.

Well, Last Go Round finally gets Ken Kesey out of the produce department and, whatever caused the Merry Prankster's thirty-year slump no longer seems to matter. Kesey is back.

Last Go Round does not come close to the old blood and viscera of the Stamper family in Sometimes a Great Notion, but Kesey discovers some of his old magic and enlivens a rich, historical moment with his fictional pizzazz. This is Kesey's bootstrap effort to write a real Western through the eyes of a real cowpoke who relates the real story of three crazy broncbusters contending for a silver-studded saddle and world title at the first World Championship rodeo in Pendleton, Ore.

Kesey's narrator and little big man, Jonathan E. Lee Spain, recounts events surrounding the 1911 Pendleton Round Up. He returns to Oregon "closing in on nine-tenths of a century" to see the Round Up one last time and to satisfy his curiosity about a young black saddlebronc he has read about in the newspapers. People thought Drew Washington, the hotshot from Watts, might be " ... the first of his race to win the prize saddle since that immortal black buckaroo at the first Pendleton Round Up."

But Spain knows the truth, and in an ironic twist of horse flesh, he ends up at the young cowboy's bedside speaking more to himself than to the comatose kid: "'Back to this damn old Pendleton Hospital after all, for observation, just like you ... back to another time as well ... '"

The seventeen-year-old John Spain hooks up with the two "all round" local favorites of the championship on the Round Up Special out of Denver. They drop in on horseback through an open-topped boxcar. A small, laughing black man reigns his horse around and introduces himself as Mister Fletcher. The other rider, a "stiff lanky Indian wearing a flat-brimmed hat and a thin-lipped scowl," calls himself Mister Jackson. The three become close friends and fierce competitors.

Spain shares his story with the busted boy from Watts and explains how in 1911 he earned his way into the last go 'round with Mister Fletcher and Mister Jackson, and tells him who actually won that silver-studded saddle and became the very first World Rodeo Champion.

Kesey's story turns on the powerful players who travel to Pendleton on the Round Up Special in the private railcar of a Denver financier. Their back-room deal-making overshadows and eventually threatens the championship. People like Buffalo Bill Cody and his seedy entourage of grifters and showmen do their best to rig the game and con the crowds.

It matters little to John Spain if the lifeless cowboy laid out in the hospital ever hears a word of his story just so long as the rest of us are listening.

"Maybe you always think of yourself as what you were in that short high noon of fame, not what you are all the rest of the long twilight and dark."

Ken Kesey knows all about the twilight and dark, and now that he knows, maybe Last Go Round will not be his last after all. (Viking, paper, $10.95)


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