cover image Last Go Round: 2a Real Western

Last Go Round: 2a Real Western

Ken Kesey. Viking Books, $21.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-670-84883-6

The year is 1911, the occasion is the Pendleton, Oregon, Round-Up, and the cast of characters in Kesey's weak new novel (after Sailor Song ) mixes historical and imagined personages in a manner less reminiscent of E. L. Doctorow than of Jack Higgins. In this homage to a vanished genre of pulp fiction, young Tennessean Jonathan E. Lee Spain is on his way to Pendleton with his trusty horse, Stonewall, when he meets Jackson Sundown, a Nez Perce of few words, and George Fletcher, a dapper and wildly talented black cowboy. Sundown and Fletcher are the world's top bronc-riders; falling in with them, Spain is given a view of life on the rodeo circuit as experienced by its most talented but ultimately disenfranchised participants. A heavy-drinking Buffalo Bill Cody and his evil sidekick Frank Gotch, the world-champion wrestler whose body and mind mysteriously ran amok after a trip to Mexico, are the story's chief villains, but con men and cheats are not hard to come by in the high-stakes world of show-biz rodeo. Told via flashback by a much older and wiser Spain, who has since lost a hand in the ring, Kesey's tale portrays rodeo as a show mounted at the cost of both human and animal life. But in the end, his overall comic treatment of this and other tragic themes does not ring true. Despite a wealth of historical information, this latest from the Merry Prankster and his collaborator Babbs ( On the Bus ) is a hodgepodge affair, ill-conceived and poorly crafted. But the 16-page photo insert, featuring the novel's real-life players, might be enough to draw aficionados to the book. (July)