November 11 2001
Ken Kesey, Novelist and '60s Icon, Dies
Obituary: Author of 'Cuckoo's Nest' and leader of LSD-fueled Pranksters was 66.
By ELAINE WOO
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Novelist Ken Kesey, who wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," then became a prophet of the psychedelic era when he led an LSD-fueled band of free spirits on a cross-country bus trip in the early 1960s, died Saturday at a hospital in Eugene, Ore. He was 66.
His death came two weeks after cancer surgery to remove nearly half of his liver.
Kesey found resounding critical acclaim with "Cuckoo's Nest," a darkly humorous parable set in a mental hospital. Published in 1962, his first novel resonated with a generation weary of the conformist 1950s and receptive to its message about the dangers to individual freedom and expression. He also was the leader of the Merry Pranksters, who commanded a 1939 school bus painted in Day-Glo hues to spread their love of hallucinogens and a let-it-be attitude. Their exploits were celebrated in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which became an underground classic soon after its 1968 publication. Kesey emerged as a countercultural folk hero.
"He was very definitely the person who set the tone of the entire psychedelic or hippie movement," Wolfe said Saturday by phone from Philadelphia. "Ken had this expression: 'It's time to move off dead center.' . . . A whole generation moved off dead center, a whole lot of things changed, from the breakdown in the walls of formality between teachers and students to the use of hallucinogenic drugs."
Together with Timothy Leary, another guru of the '60s, Kesey was a major figure in "a general throwing aside of constraints, which made a tremendous difference in American society," Wolfe said.
Kesey's second and most successful novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion," followed closely behind "Cuckoo's Nest," in 1964. Over the next three decades, he would write only one more major novel, "Sailor Song," in 1992.
He seemed to relish confounding conventional expectations, abandoning writing for long stretches while he pursued other interests--performing with the Grateful Dead, giving readings of his children's stories, making videos out of the miles of footage he and other Pranksters shot during what they came to call the Intrepid Trip.
"He was a very kinetic individual," said novelist Larry McMurtry, who studied writing with Kesey at Stanford University in the late 1950s. "It is as a writer that I think of Ken. [But] he had something of the farmer in him, something of the director in him. And the Pranksters on the bus putting on hats and brightening up the lives of people in many communities--it seemed to please him."
"Kesey was the trickster par excellence," said Robert Faggen, an associate professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College, who wrote the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of "Cuckoo's Nest," to be published by Viking in January. "He was always challenging and subverting those around him, challenging the masquerade of settled life."
Kesey's literary output was not immense and his later works were often dismissed, sometimes savagely, by critics who suggested that his years of drug experimentation had ruined his writing.
But there was a common strand, which he once described this way: "There's a snake in the grass. Sometimes it's the government. Sometimes it's evil spirits. Sometimes it's some part of yourself," he told The Times in 1990. "But there's an evil force, and it attacks you [where] you are most vulnerable."
Art, he believed, was the opposition force and held the possibility of salvation.
"That's what 'Cuckoo's Nest' is about," he said. "That's what 'Great Notion' is about: the small trying to stand up against a great force. But that force is getting stronger."
Kesey was born in La Junta, Colo., the son of dairy farmers. As a child he moved with his family to Oregon, where he developed a great love of the outdoors, swimming, fishing and riding river rapids. He was voted most likely to succeed when he graduated from high school in Springfield.
He went on to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he made his mark as a wrestler and as an actor in campus plays. After graduating in 1957, he spent some time as a bit actor in Hollywood.
He gave up acting for the writing program at Stanford, which he attended on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. He was taught by Wallace Stegner and Malcolm Cowley, the legendary editor of both William Faulkner and Jack Kerouac, whose "On the Road" had just been published. Kesey's fellow students included McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone and Ernest Gaines.
Kesey lived in a Palo Alto bohemian enclave called Perry Lane, where a neighbor told him of government experiments with "psychomimetic" drugs like LSD at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital. In 1959 Kesey signed up as a paid volunteer in the experiments and was so entranced by the mind-altering capabilities of the drugs he was offered that he sought to extend his access by becoming a night attendant in the mental ward.
His experiences provided the grim grist for "Cuckoo's Nest."
He was taking mescaline and LSD when he conceived the novel, he said, and was under the influence of peyote when he wrote the first few pages.
The drugs, he told Faggen in a 1994 interview for the Paris Review, "gave me a different perspective on the people in the mental hospital, a sense that maybe they were not so crazy or as bad as the sterile environment they were living in."
The story warns of the evils afoot in postwar America. It is told through the eyes of Chief Bromden, an American Indian electro-shocked into silence. Nurse Ratched, who rules the ward with drugs and terror, is a symbol of repression and dehumanization. Randle Patrick McMurphy, the cocky con man who feigns craziness to escape a prison term, rebels against the asylum's ridiculous rules and incites other inmates to rise up against the tyranny but winds up paying dearly, lobotomized into submission.
The novel's power came in its timing, critic Pauline Kael once wrote. It "preceded the university turmoil, Vietnam, drugs, the counterculture. Yet it contained the prophetic essence of that whole period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic, and much of what it said . . . has entered the consciousness of many--possibly most--Americans."
"Cuckoo's Nest" was made into a play and adapted for the movies. The film, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, swept the 1976 Academy Awards, winning five Oscars.
But Kesey was barely credited for its success, which was just as well, because he abhorred the filmmakers' abandonment of Chief Bromden as the narrator. He earned only $28,000 from the movie, which grossed millions, and swore never to see it.
His second novel explored a vastly different landscape. "Sometimes a Great Notion" unfolds in the Pacific Northwest. The title is taken from the folk song refrain "Sometimes it seems a great notion/to jump in the river and drown." The protagonists are the Stamper brothers, Ivy League-educated Leland and his rougher-hewn half-brother, Hank, whose motto is "Never give an inch." They are independent loggers in a union-dominated town. The novel, elaborately structured with rapidly alternating points of view, explores their clashes with the community as well as with each other.
Although less successful commercially than "Cuckoo's Nest," it won raves from the critics, who appreciated its ambition. Leslie Fiedler, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, said that in creating such a different work from his first, Kesey had committed "an act of heroism, equivalent on its own literary merits level to any feat of Kesey's lumberjack hero. He has, in effect, tried to redeem the big book, the Great American Novel--replete with virgin landscapes and swelling with virile assertions."
After two solid years spent writing "Sometimes a Great Notion," which was later made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, Kesey was ready for adventure. The Pranksters had assembled and began hosting "happenings," initially private parties, which evolved into large public events, or "acid tests," that included light shows, psychedelic art and music, appreciated while under the influence of drugs.
Soon they cooked up the cross-country tour, which would end in New York for the publication of Kesey's second novel.
They outfitted the vintage International Harvester school bus with stereophonic and camera equipment and speakers loud enough to broadcast to the passing world. They painted wild designs in iridescent yellows, oranges, blues, reds. Then they adorned it with two signs. The one in front announced its name, Further. The one in back cautioned "Weird Load."
"The Pranksters were now out among them," Wolfe wrote, "and it was exhilarating--look at the mothers staring!--and there was going to be holy terror in the land."
Kesey met Kerouac during the trip. He also tried to meet Leary, but the latter was in the midst of a three-day meditation and would not take a break. Music was blaring, drugs were flowing, and Kesey, dubbed Chief Prankster, was at the roiling center.
Deirdre English, writing in the New York Times Book Review a few decades later, noted that "Uptight America was in desperate need of what they provided: an astoundingly successful communal exorcism of the stifling spirits of the '50s conformity."
Kesey came to be seen as a bridge between the Beats of the 1950s and the hippies who came after. It was an honor he viewed with typical Keseyian humor.
"To be the bridge from the Beatniks to the hippies shows that we don't exist in either world. We lie in the cracks between them. We think of ourselves as crackers," he told the Times-Union of Albany, N.Y., earlier this year.
The cross-country bus trip, his old friend and novelist Stone once observed, was an act intent on breaking down "the artifice between the artist and his public."
To be the art or the artist--this was the tension that drove Kesey the rest of his years.
He wrote a screenplay based on his 1967 flight to Mexico to evade prosecution on marijuana charges. He later served a short sentence at the San Mateo County Jail and the San Mateo Sheriff's Honor Camp. After his release, he moved to a farm outside Eugene, near the town of Pleasant Hill. It became a mecca for hippies and other vagabonds who saw Kesey as their guru.
He wrote sporadically in the following years. His books included "Kesey's Garage Sale," which one critic described as a rather chaotic collection of essays, articles and interviews. Thirteen years would pass before he produced another book, "Demon Box," also a collection of shorter writings. He wrote a couple of children's stories and a mystery called "Caverns," a joint project of a writing class he taught at the University of Oregon in the late 1980s.
He struggled to return to a more traditional novel in "Sailor Song," but gave up writing it for a while after the death of a son, Jed, in a car crash in 1990. Kesey completed the book in 1992, almost 20 years after his previous major novel. Set in a blighted Alaskan fishing village, "Sailor Song" takes place at some future time, when the plagues of global warming, nuclear pollution and rampant cancer have all come to bear. The critical reaction was mixed, with those who disliked it particularly vehement.
Although he was unapologetic about his use of drugs, Kesey conceded that they "probably" hindered his fictional voice. "But if I could go back and trade in certain experiences I've had for brain cells presumably burned up," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, "it would be a tough decision."
He remained colorful to the end. He performed in concerts wearing top hat and tails and, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, read his children's story "Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear." He experimented with writing an illuminated novel with pictures and different styles of print. He wrote a play called "Twister." He maintained a Web site, with longtime friend Ken Babbs, called IntrepidTrips.com.
These projects, he once said, were "all part of the same work. You put on a different costume. But you're always a shaman. The fire pit changes its shape."
He is survived by his wife, Faye; a son, Zane; daughters Shannon Smith and Sunshine Kesey; his mother, Geneva Jolley; a brother, Chuck; and three grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.