Saturday November 10 12:38 PM ET
Novelist, 60s Icon Ken Kesey Dies
By JEFF BARNARD, Associated Press Writer
GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Ken Kesey, whose LSD-fueled bus ride became a symbol of the psychedelic 1960s after he won fame as a novelist with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," died Saturday morning. He was 66.
Kesey died at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, two weeks after cancer surgery to remove 40 percent of his liver.
"He's gone too soon and he will leave a big gap. Always the leader, now he leads the way again," said Ken Babbs, a longtime friend.
After studying writing at Stanford University, Kesey burst onto the literary scene in 1962 with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", followed quickly with "Sometimes a Great Notion" in 1964, then went 28 years before publishing his third major novel.
In 1964, he rode across the country in an old school bus named Furthur driven by Neal Cassady, hero of Jack Kerouac's beat generation classic, "On The Road."
The bus was filled with pals who called themselves the Merry Pranksters and sought enlightenment through the psychedelic drug LSD. The odyssey was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 account, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
"Anyone trying to get a handle on our times had better read Kesey," Charles Bowden wrote when the Los Angeles Times honored Kesey's lifetime of work with the Robert Kirsh Award in 1991. "And unless we get lucky and things change, they're going to have to read him a century from now too."
"Sometimes a Great Notion," widely considered Kesey's greatest book, told the saga of the Stamper clan, rugged independent loggers carving a living out of the Oregon woods under the motto, "Never Give A Inch." It was made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman.
But "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" became much more widely known, thanks to a movie that Kesey hated. It tells the story of R.P. McMurphy, who feigned insanity to get off a prison farm, only to be lobotomized when he threatened the authority of the mental hospital.
The 1974 movie swept the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actor and best actress, but Kesey sued the producers because it took the viewpoint away from the character of the schizophrenic Indian, Chief Bromden.
Kesey based the story on experiences working at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., while attending Wallace Stegner's writing seminar at Stanford. Kesey also volunteered for experiments with LSD.
While Kesey continued to write a variety of short autobiographical fiction, magazine articles and children's books, he didn't produce another major novel until "Sailor Song" in 1992, his long-awaited Alaska book, which he described as a story of "love at the end of the world."
"This is a real old-fashioned form," he said of the novel. "But it is sort of the Vatican of the art. Every once in a while you've got to go get a blessing from the pope."
Kesey considered pranks part of his art, and in 1990 took a poke at the Smithsonian Institution by announcing he would drive his old psychedelic bus to Washington, D.C., to give it to the nation. The museum recognized the bus as a new one, with no particular history, and rejected the gift.
In a 1990 interview with The Associated Press, Kesey said it had become harder to write since he became famous.
"When I was working on 'Sometimes a Great Notion,' one of the reasons I could do it was because I was unknown," he said. "I could get all those balls in the air and keep them up there and nothing would come along and distract me. Now there's a lot of stuff happens that happens because I'm famous. And famous isn't good for a writer. You don't observe well when you're being observed."
A graduate of the University of Oregon, Kesey returned to his alma mater in 1990 to teach novel writing. With each student assigned a character and writing under the gun, the class produced "Caverns," under the pen name OU Levon, or UO Novel spelled backward.
"The life of it comes from making people believe that these people are drawing breath and standing up, casting shadows, and living lives and feeling agonies," Kesey said then. "And that's a trick. It's a glorious trick. And it's a trick that you can be taught. It's not something, just a thing that comes from the muses."
Among his proudest achievements was seeing "Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear," which he wrote from an Ozark mountains tale told by his grandmother, included on the 1991 Library of Congress list of suggested children's books.
"I'm up there with Dr. Seuss," he crowed.
Fond of performing, Kesey sometimes recited the piece in top hat and tails accompanied by an orchestra, throwing a shawl over his head while assuming the character of his grandmother reciting the nursery rhyme, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Other works include "Kesey's Garage Sale" and "Demon Box," collections of essays and short stories, and "Further Inquiry," another look at the 1964 bus trip in which the soul of Cassidy is put on trial. "The Sea Lion" was another children's book, telling the story of a crippled boy who saves his Northwest Indian tribe from an evil spirit by invoking the gift-giving ceremony of potlatch.
Born in La Junta, Colo., on Sept. 17, 1935, Kesey moved as a young boy in 1943 from the dry prairie to his grandparents' dairy farm in Oregon's lush Willamette Valley. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon, where he also was a wrestler.
After serving four months in jail for a marijuana bust in California, he set down roots in Pleasant Hill in 1965 with his high school sweetheart, Faye, and reared four children. Their rambling red barn house with the big Pennsylvania Dutch star on the side became a landmark of the psychedelic era, attracting visits from myriad strangers in tie-dyed clothing seeking enlightenment.
The bus Furthur rusted away in a boggy pasture while Kesey raised beef cattle.
Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes in 1992.
His son Jed, killed in a 1984 van wreck on a road trip with the University of Oregon wrestling team, was buried in the back yard.