Monday, November 12, 2001; Page C01
Exit the Magic Busman
By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
When Ken Kesey died Saturday of liver cancer and who knows what else (hepatitis C, diabetes, a stroke a few years back) the energy of America dropped by a volt or two.
This is to say: the American energy of infinite possibility, of life as the ultimate consumer item, of souls as eternal You-Land theme parks he visited with the wild, dark celebrations of his novels and an extravaganza of drug intake that could and did leave weaker people empty-eyed.
At 66, in Oregon, his family at his hospital bedside. In his sleep, this calm, brawny power source whose glow turned people into moths -- a champion wrestler (174-pound class), best-selling novelist ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), the first of the party-down, Day-Glo LSD prophets, an inner frontiersman who seemed to know the cosmos is an inside joke and seemed to assume that you knew it, too. And if you didn't -- as Kesey said, "Either you're on the bus or off the bus."
You wanted to be on the bus. At least, he had the knack of making you feel that way. I recall him standing in the light rain outside his converted barn of a house in Pleasant Hill, Ore. This was in 1974, 10 years after the cross-country psychedelic bus trip chronicled by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
I was early for our interview. I said I hoped I hadn't interrupted him.
"Actually, it's good you got here," he said. "I was about to leave and I wouldn't have been able to see you till tomorrow."
As if something magical had occurred, as if my arrival demonstrated that I was on the bus, and as if he didn't care what assurances he'd made to me about being there when I arrived.
I felt bad. He smiled a small smile of large invitation and we went inside. I felt good. He had the animal-quick knack of charm. His preternatural calm, bulk and fame tensed me up just enough that I was grateful when he smiled. I'd had my own explorations in the '60s, but he was the hero adventurer in that line, and by welcoming my company he made me feel worthier than I feared I was.
Big chest, shoulders, arms, chin, nose, and bald head with pale rusty curls piling out over his ears. He was instantaneous, as if he'd gained a microsecond on time in everything he did, down to picking up a phone or rolling a joint with his big, deft, high school magician's fingers.
We talked. The rain fell. People came and went, some as if they were stopping by to fill their tanks with Kesey Premium. He had a patience about him, as if giving his energy to the world were a moral obligation he'd come to live with. We talked about his role as the man who built the bridge from '50s Beat cool and valorization of neurosis to '60s hippie exuberance and valorization of psychosis. We'd talked about Neal Cassady, who'd been turned into a legend by Jack Kerouac as Dean Moriarty in "On the Road," and then showed up at Kesey's place to drive the bus, nonstop, speed-rapping all the way. Cassady, to Kesey, was the noble savage, freedom incarnate. And his link to the Beats. On and on.
The most routine thoughts could hit him as if they were revelations.
"Hey!" he said at last, as if he'd just discovered relativity. "Let's feed the cows!" He pulled on a pointy-topped, ear-flapped Tibetan knit cap and rushed out and humped hay bales to the 26 cows in a pasture -- just beyond the yard where the famous 1939 International Harvester cross-country school bus, named Furthur, moldered.
He talked much magical doom, like "You can't vote for Nixon and what he stands for and get away with it. And we all have to pay."
Then some clouds pulled apart, offering near-sunshine. Kesey said: "You see? No matter how bad it gets, sometime during every day the sun always comes out, even if it's just for a little while."
Was he trying to make me challenge this rubbish? I decided against it. He could work on a lot more levels than I could.
This was Kesey, I saw, and you were either on the bus or off the bus. All this energy and folk wisdom and magic powered everything he did, starting with his prose. Describing an unfinished family home in "Sometimes a Great Notion":
"There the blamed thing stood on the bank, huge, paintless, Godless. Without its windows it resembled a wooden skull, watching the river flow past with black sockets. More like a mausoleum than a house; more like a place to end life, Jonas thought, than a place to start fresh anew. For this land was permeated with dying; this bounteous land, where plants grew overnight, where Jonas has watched a mushroom push from the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of a hat -- this bounteous land was saturated with moist and terrible dying."
Kesey was one of the last of the barbaric-yawp men in the tradition of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman sounding their voices over American rooftops, trumpeting their rue, saluting every leaf of grass. He was one of our last frontiersmen, heading into the wilderness of himself. In an interview with the Paris Review, he explained what he was exploring in both writing and psychedelic bus trips:
"Wilderness and its wildness. The explorers and pioneers sought that wildness because they could sense that in Europe everything had become locked tight. . . . When we got here, there was a sense of possibility . . . and it had to do with wildness. Throughout the work of James Fenimore Cooper there is what I call the American terror . . . the terror of the Hurons out there, the terror of the bear, the avalanche. . . .
"Now we don't even have the bomb hanging over our heads to terrify us and give us reason to dress up in manly deerskin and go forth to battle it."
Kesey found the terror in LSD, where all your moral self-accountings and self-esteem can fall away and "there's only a big hollow, the great American wild hollow, which is scarier than hell. . . . And if you've got courage, you go ahead and examine that hollow. . . . That's the new wilderness."
He'd been one of the first Day-Glo voices in the 1960s LSD wilderness while also being one of the last questers for the grail called the Great American Novel, which he sought first with the multimillion-selling "Cuckoo's Nest" in 1962, and damn near found with the grand and wordy "Notion" in 1964, though many critics disagreed.
The same year, he loaded his friends and followers known as "The Merry Pranksters" into a 1939 International Harvester school bus equipped with movie cameras, sound system, American flags and the sort of paint job that derives from a vat of acid-laced orange juice, and drove across the country, seeking to rewire the American psyche from 110 to 220.
With the Grateful Dead as a sort of house band, he and the Pranksters held the California LSD festivals the Pranksters called "Acid Tests." Then Wolfe's book turned Kesey from famous writer and party-down drug mystic into a culture hero whose life became his work in the eyes of the public. He did six months in jail for a marijuana bust. He went back to Oregon with wife and four children. He moved to his father's farm.
There were more drugs, but the age of salvation through chemistry was ending. There were more books, but they were no longer power grids for readers. He appeared with the Grateful Dead, playing something called the "thunder machine." He filled college
lecture halls. "Cuckoo" became required reading in high schools. Kesey wasn't happy about it -- his hilarious, ominous anti-establishment anthem had become another tool of what he sometimes called "Them." He hated the Oscar-winning movie of it so much based on the script and casting (Jack Nicholson was "too short") that he refused to see it.
He and the Pranksters produced awkward accounts of the bus trip, the '60s. A Web site offered souvenirs, CDs and video excerpts from the 40-some hours of bus trip footage.
I saw some of it in 1974: It meant nothing. It looked like college kids running around and making faces at the camera, out of focus. Kesey told me he was convinced there was a masterpiece lurking in those film cans.
My last day in Oregon, back in 1974, I had to pick something up at a Eugene radio station where the Prankster archives were stored. On the way I was startled to notice that a sentence was running through my head: "I hope Kesey's there I hope Kesey's there . . . "
Charm can be dangerous, which is what makes it charming, of course. So I got a grip. Except the weird thing was that Kesey was there, with some of the Pranksters. Clearly there was another little Kesey lesson or destiny in store -- I'd passed up the joints that floated past, but now here he was standing next to his huge old Ford sedan with an industrial-size tank of nitrous oxide, people taking turns pulling the gas right out of the valve, very dangerous I'd been told, because you could freeze your larynx.
He offered me a hit, and I took it, a great wong-a-wong-a 20-second journey out to some cosmic outpost and back. I had to go further, into the hollow. I emptied my lungs and took a final pull. New trip: I felt strange pressure on my elbows and noticed I could see the gravel of the parking lot as if my eyes were three inches away.
Of course, they were. I'd fallen over right from the toes, and Kesey with his reflexes had caught me by the elbows just before I hit the ground.
Well. Yes indeed. The charm, the danger, the instantaneity, the wilderness, Ken Kesey.