San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, November 11, 2001

KEN KESEY 1935-2001

Larger-than-life novelist, counterculture icon dies

David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic

Ken Kesey, whose exuberant novels "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" championed individualism under attack from the forces of conformity, died yesterday morning of complications from liver cancer at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Ore. He was 66.

Before he turned 30, Mr. Kesey wrote the two masterpieces that have become his literary legacy. Many contemporary writers have written of the profound debt they feel to his vibrant prose and larger-than-life characters.

Pulitzer-winning novelist Richard Ford ("The Sportswriter," Springs," "Independence Day") has said that Mr. Kesey wrote two of the most influential books of the last 40 years. " 'Sometimes a Great Notion' is one of the great, great books written by an American, hands down," Ford said. "Likewise 'Cuckoo's Nest.' "

Both novels were set in Oregon, but "Cuckoo's Nest" grew out of Mr. Kesey's experiences as an orderly in the Menlo Park Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he had worked to put himself through Stanford University's creative writing program. His classmates included future best-selling novelists Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone.

Mr. Kesey also used to pick up walking-around money by participating in medical experiments, ingesting such hallucinogens as psilocybin, mescaline and LSD. He wound up extolling their mind-altering properties as a founding member of the extended counterculture family known as the Merry Pranksters.


At one point, he enlisted the Warlocks, soon to become the Grateful Dead, as the Merry Pranksters' house band. In 1964, he and the other Pranksters set off for the New York World's Fair in an International Harvester school bus dating from another world's fair year, 1939. They painted the bus in psychedelic colors, christened it "Furthur" and proceeded to drive it across the country to the exposition in Flushing, N.Y., dropping copious quantities of acid along the way.

For a driver, Mr. Kesey drafted Neal Cassady -- the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road," and a living link between the hippie movement and its beatnik precursors.

The Pranksters' adventures were immortalized by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." has called Mr. Kesey "one of the most important American writers of the second half of the 20th century."

Ken Elton Kesey was born on Sept. 17, 1935, in La Junta, Colo., the younger of two sons. In 1946 the family moved to a farm in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where Mr. Kesey grew up in a religious Christian household. Mr. Kesey earned "Most Likely to Succeed" honors from his high school classmates and excelled at wrestling, setting state records that stood for years.

"He's the strongest guy I ever met, and the most generous spirit," said author Chuck Kinder, whose 2001 novel "Honeymooners" mythologized a slightly later crop of Stanford writers. "It's impossible to imagine him dying."

Mr. Kesey eloped with his high school sweetheart, Faye Haxby, with whom he would raise four children.


Viking published Mr. Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1962, and his name was made. Narrated by the voluntary mute Chief Broom, Mr. Kesey's story of free spirit Randle P. McMurphy and his incarceration in a mental institution under the iron grip of authoritarian Nurse Ratched would inspire a Broadway play starring Kirk Douglas and an Oscar-winning film produced by Douglas' son Michael.

Mr. Kesey moved back to Oregon to research and write 1964's "Sometimes a Great Notion," the story of an outsized logging clan and their battles with labor and among themselves. In it, he dramatized the conflict between East Coast intellectualism and Western independent-mindedness -- a clash that would later echo in his own life, as New York tastemakers undervalued or forgot his work.

Over the ensuing years, he published two miscellanies of stories and articles, "Kesey's Garage Sale" and "Demon Box," which drew respectful but impatient reviews. So did some children's books, a memoir of sorts titled "The Further Inquiry" and a novel called "Caverns," written in collaboration with his University of Oregon writing students. A third solo novel, "Sailor Song," found few champions.

If Mr. Kesey's output diminished, his outlook never did. Mr. Kesey's ramshackle farm in Pleasant Hill, Ore., became a magnet for fans and curiosity- seekers alike. Among those who made the pilgrimage to Mr. Kesey's big red barn was screenwriter and author David Weddle, who profiled Mr. Kesey for Rolling Stone magazine.

"You could never make an appointment to see him because you couldn't pin him down," Weddle said. "You just had to go up and see him. So I just drove up to the farm and hoped he'd talk to me."

Weddle wound up spending the weekend. Friends and family drifted through the place, which reflected Mr. Kesey's singular sensibilities. The original Merry Pranksters' bus gently moldered in a field. Every tool and musical instrument on the farm was painted a different color. Loudspeakers located in the house and in the fields blasted reggae to humans and cows alike.


"He was incredibly generous to me, some guy he didn't know," Weddle said. "We hiked in the mountains, and he knew the name of every plant he saw. We watched a football game one afternoon, and he took turns rooting for each team.

Then we'd go out in a field and move some sprinklers around for the cows. He loved physical labor, and he loved the land."

Although Mr. Kesey gradually gave up his novelistic ambitions, he continued to publish when events seemed to demand it. He wrote feelingly of John Lennon's death in a piece that found its way into "Demon Box," described his loss when his son Jed died in a car accident in 1984, contributed a vignette to the New Yorker a year or two back and wrote a reflection on Sept. 11 that appeared just two weeks ago on the Pranksters' Web site,

He is survived by his wife, three children, innumerable friends and two great books.