The Prankster-in-Chief Moves On
The answer is never the answer. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer—they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.
Ken Kesey was dressed in white from head to toe when I first met him, in the spring of 1979, at the first and only Southern Oregon Writers Conference in Klamath Falls, which a friend and I had organized. A broad tank of a man with a fringe of sandy curls around his balding head, carrying some extra weight but otherwise looking every bit the collegiate wrestler he once had been, Kesey talked at dinner about farming and especially about sheep, the purity of their innocence, how we needed that in our lives. There was a Christian flavor to his remarks. He likened himself to a retired country squire. I, tuned to his every word with the hunger of an unpublished novice, was disappointed. This was my psychedelic hero, the progenitor of McMurphy and Stamper, the Prankster-in-Chief on the legendary bus called Furthur?
But in the fiction workshop he said some things I’ve never forgotten. He asked what we were reading. “You!” somebody hollered. Well, Kesey replied, why are you reading me? If you want to write you should be reading Melville and Hawthorne, Shakespeare, the King James Bible. You should go to the source. Listen, he said, his enthusiasm gathering, when you sit down to write you’re inside a bubble, see? And the bubble lives outside of time, outside the little room where you’re writing, and with you in that bubble are the greatest, the truly original writers—if you’ve read them. That, he told us, is the possibility, the pure potential of creative writing. We knew he had been there. He lifted us, and challenged us, with that directive.
On the second day of the conference, perhaps a bit worn down by short stories such as mine, which was about a man who kills a woman and forgets it and climbs a mountain and remembers and freezes to death, Kesey said, “People, listen. It comes down to this. If it doesn’t uplift the human heart, piss on it.”
He was then forty-four. It had been twelve years since he had resettled on the farm near Pleasant Hill where he had grown up in the 1940s and ’50s, doing magic acts onstage—a showman from the start—at the McDonald Theater in Eugene, and later wrestling for the University of Oregon and almost making the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. In 1958, twenty-three years old, Kesey moved to California with his wife, Faye Haxby, with whom he had eloped two years before. He brought an unpublished novel and a lot of ambition and attitude to Wallace Stegner’s graduate creative writing program at Stanford University, and a couple of years later he enrolled in a different curriculum—Army- or CIA-sponsored tests at a Veterans Administration hospital on the effects of psychoactive drugs, for which he received seventy-five dollars a session.
The Defense Department wanted to know if LSD could be useful in espionage and prisoner interrogations. It’s unknown if Kesey helped them to an answer, but it’s certain that he became an instant advocate of exploring the inner wilderness of the psyche, and fundamentally changing society, by means of LSD. When he hired on as a night aide in the psychiatric ward of the hospital, he recognized the kinship between psychedelic awareness and psychosis: The patients were lost explorers. Kesey began a story about life in such a ward, a story that wouldn’t cohere until one night, in a peyote-induced vision, he conjured a schizophrenic American Indian he called Chief Bromden. He had a narrator and he had a novel.
The miracle of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, first, that a guy could write a novel while regularly blasting his head with hallucinogens; and, second, that he could write a very fine novel in which psychedelic consciousness, deftly and aptly incorporated, is essential to the tale. He captures its paranoiac aura in the subtle click and hum of machinery Chief Bromden hears in the asylum walls, and in the “microscopic wires and grids and transistors . . . designed to dissolve on contact with air” the chief imagines when he crushes one of the daily sedatives Big Nurse force-feeds her inmates. And he evokes just as tellingly the expansive, synesthetic happiness of the psychedelic high, as when Randle Patrick McMurphy first enters the joint and bellows his vast laugh—“free and loud and it comes out of his wide grinning mouth and spreads in rings bigger and bigger till it’s lapping against the walls all over the ward.”
Kesey had the mental and emotional strength to harness for his art the experience that reduced most of us to wordlessness—an indication, surely, of a sense of self and purpose as powerful as his physical being, and this in a writer in his mid-twenties. But the book came to full fruition, it turns out, in the ordinary way—through hard work. According to Malcolm Cowley, the Stanford professor Kesey liked best, he wrote long patches of the novel “at top speed,” often under the influence, but returned to those drafts later to add, delete, correct, and rewrite, responding to Cowley’s observations and his own, un-spaced-out judgment. The canard that Kesey never revised his first drafts, in the fashion of some of the Beats, has flourished far too long.
Cuckoo’s Nest, tapping perfectly the temper of the times with its cosmology of a tight-assed freedom-hating Combine running the country, was published in 1962 to enormous acclaim and sales. Hard on its heels two years later came a second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Kesey had returned to Oregon, lived in logging camps, and re-frequented the haunts of his youth to write it. Cuckoo’s Nest is perhaps the better-achieved book, but Notion, for me, is the greater achievement—a sprawling, boisterous, multigenerational story of a Coast Range logging family pitted against its community, of one brother locking horns with another, and of East Coast culture at odds with earthy, implacable, Western stubbornness. These tensions play out in a place—landscape, weather, biota—as intimately and animatedly evoked as any in literature. If Cuckoo’s Nest shines with the moral clarity of parable, Notion has the variegated texture, heroic proportions, and moral complexity of epic myth. The book’s ambition is evident in the method of its telling, which has time sliding freely backward and forward and point of view slipping continually among several characters, including a dog and an eerie, Whitmanesque omniscient observer who sees everything, right down to blackberry roots deepening their hold in the rain-sodden earth.
Sometimes a Great Notion trips now and then on its special effects. It is overlong and in parts overwritten. But it fairly vibrates with the life and land of the Pacific Northwest, and it is, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of the best novels I know.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again,” Kesey told an interviewer, and he wasn’t. Two books in two years seemed to exhaust his artistry—or maybe just redirected it. As the first (very mixed) reviews of Notion appeared in 1964, Kesey and his band of co-spirited Merry Pranksters were cavorting cross-country in a 1939 International Harvester school bus lushly painted with dazzling day-glo colors, dropping acid, taking footage for a movie, and demonstrating to the heartland their version of the new consciousness, a journey well-chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The bus was named Furthur; a sign on the back read caution: weird load. Back in California later that year, Kesey and the Pranksters spread the news through a series of Acid Tests, serving up LSD—until October 1966 still perfectly legal—in smoking punchbowls of Kool-Aid on dry ice, as strobe lights flickered and phantasmagoric images pulsed liquidly on the dancehall walls to the music of a new band first called the Warlocks and later the Grateful Dead. The aesthetics of the psychedelic era, as well as wider use of the drugs, derived in large part from the Furthur expedition and the Acid Tests.
For many of us who were introduced to LSD and its ilk in the ’60s, or who introduced ourselves, the psychedelic experience was a mixed and at times harrowing thing. My dorm-mates and I at Reed College burdened our explorations with an interpretive framework involving the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was to guide us through the bardos of ego death to the clear white light and back again. It never worked for me. More than once I was reduced for a time—a timeless time—to a quivering puddle of fear, quite certain that I was forever lost from my life. Psychedelics awakened me to spiritual awareness, an immense gift, but they also fragmented my accustomed and still-forming sense of being, leaving me with a vision of happiness—a human community of love and trust, beyond fear—but pretty distant from happiness itself. Kesey and his cohorts, it seemed from afar, were living that vision. They got the dance of the experience, its truest lesson, and showed the way like joyous pioneers, standing up to the forces of cultural reaction seemingly without fear. In doing so they showed the rare courage—few others had it, Allen Ginsberg being one—to risk being ridiculed and taken for fools.
But the forces of cultural reaction had muscle to flex, and they came at Kesey hard. When two pot-possession raps early in 1966 brought him face to face with a possible five-year prison term, he faked his suicide and fled to safety across the Mexican border. He stayed eight months, joined by his family and a handful of friends, before smuggling himself north again, on horseback, in the persona of a drunken cowboy with a guitar strapped across his back. Making unscheduled public appearances in the Bay Area, evading the law for a while, the avatar of Better Living Through Chemistry threw one last Acid Test. But in this one, a sedate affair on Halloween night 1966, Kesey for the first time preached limits. He billed it as a graduation event, meant to convey to the faithful and the curious that the time had come to move beyond the frequent use of psychedelics.
Collared by authorities, Kesey answered for his pot busts by serving a negotiated six months in the San Mateo County Jail and sheriff’s work detail. When he’d done his time, his enthusiasms perhaps just slightly dampened, he came home to Oregon and his father’s farm, where he settled in with Faye to raise their children.
In the ’70s he wrote magazine pieces, mainly, many of them elegiac about what the counterculture had been and rueful about what it was becoming—random destructiveness, hard drug use, many of the famous and the nameless dying of overdoses. In a story called “The Day After Superman Died”—the reference is to Neal Cassady, the legendary “Fastestmanalive,” hero of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and driver of Furthur on the Pranksters’ 1964 trek—Kesey has a tense standoff with two hippies who drop by the farm on their way home from the Woodstock music festival, a young airhead and an older, tattooed, rotten-toothed Mansonlike jerk. The atmosphere is all irony and apocalypse—a pall of acrid smoke from burning grass fields, Kesey unable to find his “colored glasses,” a lamb inexplicably dead, the Beach Boys singing “Good Vibrations” on a tinny radio, and then a friend arrives with news that the great Cassady, doped-up in Mexico, has died of exposure on a pathetic expedition to count railroad ties.
In the story, Kesey’s conservative friend from Stanford days, the novelist Larry McMurtry, asks in a letter, “What has the Good Old Revolution been doing lately?”
“Losing,” is all Kesey can think to reply.
Or changing form, moving on to the next stage. Kesey had cranked up his tractor, acquired a small fleet of long, low convertibles—he preferred Cadillacs—for getting around his farm, and applied himself to the raising of cattle and sheep and the growing of blueberries. As his kids went through the Pleasant Hill schools he served on school board committees. He helped coach wrestling—not officially or by invitation—and cheered for both sides at football games. He spoke, whenever asked, at high school commencement ceremonies. He used his stature in various ways to help local businesses. For more than three decades he and Faye lived a life of engagement with family and community and the land, a life that offers very lean pickings to those ’60s-vilifiers who would tag him as an irresponsible misleader of otherwise virtuous American youngsters.
Ken Kesey showed himself to be, in the best and most basic sense of the term, a conservative. He did not renounce psychedelic drugs. (Later in life, it’s said, he liked a dose just potent enough to tremble the leaves at their edges.) He did not renounce his distrust of power and authority, or his flair for outrageous antics. He most certainly did not renounce the essential ’60s vision that valued community over corporate profits, peace and tolerance over war and fearfulness, a sense of life’s beauty and mystery over the customary trappings of career, money, and piles of possessions. He tried to conserve what he thought best in the cultural upheaval he had so boldly assisted and melded that into the culture he had grown up in and to which he had returned. He planted his values in place and community, even as Furthur, the original bus, sank slowly into a swale on his farm, young trees growing up around it.
Kesey even taught for a year at the University of Oregon, violating his own youthful analysis of what he had learned at Stanford from Wallace Stegner: “Just never to teach in college.” He and Stegner had clashed from the beginning—inevitably, given their differences, the one a brash drug-taking rebel buzzing with Beat energy, the other a dignified elder of conservative temperament (though politically liberal) who had taught at Harvard and founded the creative writing program at Stanford. Stegner saw Kesey as talented but undisciplined, a wastrel. “I was never sympathetic to any of his ideas,” Stegner recalled years later, “because I thought many of his ideas were half-baked.” Kesey saw Stegner as the epitome of academic staidness and convention. “When we headed off on a bus to deal with the future of our synapses,” Kesey remarked in 1993, “we knew that Wally wasn’t liking what we were doing and that was good enough for us.”
Stanford University, as the 1950s turned into the ’60s, had the strongest concentration of fiction-writing talent in its history: Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, Ed McClanahan, and Wendell Berry, along with Kesey and others, shared the oval seminar table with Wallace Stegner at various times during that era. Most of them appreciated both men. “Stegner saw Kesey as a threat to civilization and intellectualism and sobriety,” Robert Stone told Stegner’s first biographer, Jackson Benson. “And Ken was a threat to all those values. But what was going on around Ken was so exciting that we were not about to line up against each other on ideological grounds.”
Both Kesey and Stegner in later years wrote or said that too much had been made of the fractiousness between them. “We got along in class perfectly well,” Stegner told Jackson Benson. “I liked his writing most of the time very well.” And Kesey, when I asked him once if Stegner had been a good teacher, replied, “He was better than a teacher. He was like Vince Lombardi, and we were the Green Bay Packers of fiction writing.” Kesey gave that same answer, publicly, many times. On another occasion, though, when I asked on the phone why it was they hadn’t gotten along, Kesey replied: “Because I was a better writer than him.”
The trouble between the two, I think now, may have stemmed as much from their likeness as it did from their differences. Each had made his way to Stanford from inauspicious beginnings in the rural West, Kesey from Colorado and Oregon, Stegner from Saskatchewan and Utah and spells in other places. Both were relatively unproven—Kesey a charismatic and gifted wannabe, Stegner with a notable career in progress but years short of winning his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and a place in the American canon. And each had arrived at Stanford’s citadel of learning with an attitude stamped into his soul. Stegner’s was: When you begin with nothing you’d better value your chances and work, work, work. Kesey’s was: Watch out, stay yourself, or power and high culture will suck out your life.
There’s validity in both.
I began my ’60s as a wannabe Keseyan, all about personal freedom, antiestablishmentism, and self-discovery. I believed in revelation, through LSD (I took my first trip in October 1966, just as the stuff was illegalized) and through love, but I knew the transient feeling of love much better than I knew the practice of love. I ended my ’60s—in the 1970s, like most of us who came of age in that time—by slowly and belatedly embracing the discipline of creative writing and a long-term commitment to another human being and to a particular place or two on Earth. I still took drugs, still reveled in personal autonomy, but I tempered the unbounded pursuit of the future of my synapses with a developing appreciation of what human synapses and spirit had accomplished through past centuries in a gathering field of tradition, and I began to define myself, and challenge myself, thereby. I took a turn in Stegner’s direction, as had Kesey—though he wouldn’t have seen it that way—after he resettled in Oregon in the late ’60s.
I doubt that Stegner and Kesey, brought together at a neutral site in the 1980s, could have suddenly appreciated each other. The gap in temperament and style was too severe. They had both sent too much static into the air, their egos too aroused. Now, with both men gone, it hardly matters. I knew Stegner better, but I’m with Robert Stone. I feel no contradiction in declaring my allegiance to both.
Many who knew them share that assessment. The Green Bay Packers of fiction writing stayed variously bonded over the decades, and when Wendell Berry came to give a reading in Eugene in the fall of 2000 with his wife, Tanya, Marilyn and I attended the dinner in Berry’s honor. Ken and Faye Kesey were there; to see them had been part of the motivation for Berry, who doesn’t travel a lot doing readings. Kesey, in the best restaurant in Eugene, was dressed in what for him was traditional clothing, a style he’d been wearing since the ’60s—a vest made of the material of an American flag, spread tight by his portly figure, and a leather cap. Slowed by a recent stroke, he was not garrulous, more warm than brash. He spoke of improving his vision by stretching the corners of his eyes to the side and pressing on his eyelids in certain ways with his fingers. In this way, he said, he could read without glasses. (This works, I have found, but is impractical for reading sessions of any length and does attract attention in restaurants.)
The day after the dinner, Marilyn and I tagged along with the Berrys to visit the Keseys at their farm. We stopped first at the inconspicuous strip mall in Pleasant Hill where Kesey’s company, Intrepid Trips, was headquartered. Kesey and Prankster associates were processing e-mailed orders for a new video from the epic 1964 journey in Furthur—Neal Cassady rapping, a visit with Timothy Leary in New York State, party scenes with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The footage we saw—chaotic, herky-jerky, imperfectly focused—suggested that the LSD experience might better have been served by filmmakers not high at the time themselves. Kesey was spraypainting designs on the cardboard sleeves that would hold the video cassettes and setting them outside the doorway to dry. Later he would sign each one. It seemed a lively cottage industry. I liked the terms of the transaction, which were straight out of the ’60s. No money up front. You ordered the tape, Kesey and company mailed it, and when you received it you sent your payment.
At the farm, Kesey and Ken Babbs, neighbors and close sidekicks since their Stanford days together, got the current bus—son of Furthur, or son of son of Furthur—coughing to life with some shots of starting fluid, and Prankster George Walker drove it creepingly out of its shed. (A trope, it seemed, for the persistence of the ’60s in our lives.) We and the Berrys admired its zany, mysterious, brightly painted designs and figures. Kesey circled the bus slowly, pointing out details, presenting with evident pride the vehicle that had come to stand as the single most vivid emblem of his influence on American culture.
A year later, in November 2001, the same bus would bear his body to his memorial service at the McDonald Theater, where he had performed as a child in the 1940s. Once again, for the last time, Ken Kesey was center-stage, this time in a coffin hand-painted in swirling pastels, less vivid but more flowing than the painting on the bus. The theater was packed with more than a thousand people. I squeezed into the balcony, against a wall where I could hear and sometimes see. Musician Mason Williams and friends, stage-right, were playing “Ripple,” the great contemporary spiritual written and popularized by the Grateful Dead.
After a while Dave Frohnmayer, president of the University of Oregon, spoke of his long acquaintance with Kesey, remarking on his strength as a collegiate wrestler, his generosity to the university, and his kindness toward the Frohnmayer family. (They lost a college-age daughter some years after the Keseys lost their eldest son Jed, a UO wrestler, when the team bus skidded over a cliff in Washington State.) Frohnmayer assessed Kesey as the single greatest exemplar of the soul and spirit of Oregon. Kesey’s agent then spoke, someone read from Sometimes a Great Notion, and son Zane Kesey showed a video—as Mason Williams sang “Shall We Gather at the River”—featuring the Reverend Ken “For God’s Sake” Kesey, in a dapper black suit and hat, haranguing his flock to abandon drugs and whiskey and all other spirits into the river, the good river, and assuring them that the river would indeed receive them. “We shall gather there,” assured the Reverend K.
Ken Babbs told of helping to dig the grave the day before. He had decided to scoop one shovelful for every year he had known his friend. Forty-three shovels. Then, that night, he woke up cold and panicked—“Oh my God, it’s forty-four.” Babbs recounted how Kesey would stay after readings to sign books—not just sign, but ornately and uniquely inscribe each one—for every soul who wanted him to. On one occasion he was still signing under a streetlight outside a long-closed bookstore at two o’clock in the morning. Babbs, a man of irrepressibly happy spirit, didn’t break down till the end of his talk. He had driven to the farm on a morning soon after Kesey had died and seen there an enormous flock of geese in a field, the most he could remember, and as he drove up they had all lifted off at once. “Sparks Fly Upward,” read the marquee outside the McDonald.
Ken Babbs’s daughter Rachel led us through “Amazing Grace,” then another short reading from Notion, and nephew Kit Kesey, manager of the McDonald, said a few words. His uncle had told him, a day or two before he died, “Kit, I’m going to fill that theater for you.” As the Grateful Dead’s “And We Bid You Goodnight” played over the sound system—Lay down, lay down and take your rest—the eight pallbearers got the casket down off the stage, struggling with the considerable load. Then came the most striking moment of the service. Voices called out from around the theater: “Bye, Ken!” “We love you.” “See you soon, Ken.” The bearers got him up the aisle and into the lobby, where the thick crowd pressed back in silence to let them pass. The bearers secured the casket on a platform on the back of the bus, and the bus pulled away, the bell on its rear-roof tolling.
But a year earlier, during our visit to the farm, there had been no bells tolling and no thoughts of death. In the warmth of the Keseys’ barn-become-house, accompanied by several Pranksters and members of the Kesey family, the old friends talked. Wendell Berry observed that of all the Green Bay Packers, only he and Kesey remained married to their wives of that time. The two of them remembered an occasion when Berry had visited the farm on a reading trip. At the end of the visit, Kesey and two Pranksters, as a special gift, had delivered Berry to Eugene not by car but in a drift boat on the Willamette River, making the most of a beautiful day. Kesey, of course, was the skipper. After a leisurely picnic on the riverbank, the group toured the Kesey family dairy. Not once did anyone look at a watch or speak of Berry’s flight, he told me later, yet they fetched him to the airport right on time. That way of things working out on the practical level seemingly without thought or concern, he told me, was as characteristic of Kesey’s doings as the generosity and style of the gift itself.
Kesey, at sixty-five, was still recognizable as Malcolm Cowley described him in 1960, with “the build of a plunging halfback, big shoulders and a neck like the stump of a Douglas fir.” As I watched him, I suddenly understood and vanquished a feeling that had troubled me for decades. I had been one of the many who waited impatiently through the ’70s and ’80s for a new novel, another major work, and I was one of the many who were disappointed in the books Kesey eventually did produce. Disappointed. As if writing two of the best American novels of the late twentieth century, and boldly lighting our times with his singular verve and enthusiasm, had not been enough. As if Ken Kesey owed me, owed us, when in truth we all owed him.
We ate dinner that evening at two round oak tables. At mine, as Ken Babbs riffed—cheeks flaring, eyes wide and bright, laughing his laugh of absolute commitment to the wonderment of living—the Prankster-in-Chief looked very much the country squire: at home in his chair, pleased with the company, making sure that wineglasses were filled when they needed to be filled and that all present had seconds and a fair shot at thirds of the great slab of salmon Faye Kesey had baked. It was a fine feast, and so was Ken Kesey’s extraordinary life, and I am grateful for everything he served.
“The Prankster Moves On” first appeared, in slightly different form, in Open Spaces (December, 2001). It is currently found in a collection of essays entitled: The Far Corner: Northwestern Views on Land, Life, and Literature (Counterpoint Press, 2009).
John Daniel’s most recent work, a novel entitled Gifted, (Counterpoint Press, 2017) is a poignant story of a young man growing up with a special connection to the natural world which informs his experiences and his understanding of those to whom he is connected. More about Daniel and his writings can be found at http://www.johndaniel-author.net.
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