Here is Jeff Forester.
Jeff Forester is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey’s Co-author Recalls Their Year Writing Together
During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.
It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.
Jeff Forester was the first Caverns author to respond to my questions. His relationship with Ken Kesey extended beyond the year he spent in his writing class. Forester published a touching remembrance of Kesey in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. The piece describes their years of friendship, Kesey’s generosity, his struggles as an artist, and his sometimes burdensome counter-culture image.
After I published my first posting about Kesey outlining my reasons for seeking out the Caverns authors and the questions I had about the project, Forester emailed me this:
“There has been a lot of misinformation that has gone out on Ken. He was an extremely disciplined writer. He took his wrestling discipline to the keyboard and grappled a project until he got it down and pinned it.
And he was generous, kind, and extremely intuitive. A remarkable person all around.
You write that you do not understand the WHY of Kesey teaching the class. Well, he had been part of an amazing writing class, and saw a team of writers built around a great coach or teacher. He valued those friendships and support for his entire life. They were a very close bunch – and the same can be said of the folks in our class. That was part of it. Kesey wanted to pay it forward and believed that the best way to learn was by doing.
But I also got the sense that he taught the class as a way to get himself back into the traces after the death of his son Jed took the wind from his sails. His productivity following Caverns was pitched.”
Forester then pointed me to the heart-wrenching letter Kesey wrote to his friends after his son’s death.
As with many projects, the more I learn, the more I feel the need to learn more.
Here is Forester’s interview:
What is your life like now? Are you still writing?
I am still writing. In 2005 I published Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the North Woods, which was a finalist for the Minnesota Books Awards, won the Choice Critics Award, and was a finalist for a number of other awards. That same year, my writing partner, Jim Berg, and I were finalists in the CineStory Screenwriting awards, which included a weeklong symposium in Idyllwild, CA. At that event I met a producer. Ultimately, we developed a screenplay around the ideas in Forest for the Trees, which was sold to Paramount Pictures, including the book rights.
In 2004 I was awarded a Jerome Travel and Study Grant to do research for a novel I am working on, North Country Digs.
In 2005 Jim and I optioned a screenplay, Lifetime in Heat, to Shampoo Ltd. A few years ago I worked as Associate Producer on an Emmy winning PBS documentary, Transplant: A Gift for Life.
I am currently working on a number of film and television projects, finishing the draft of North Country Digs, as well as working on a few online magazines and web sites.
What do you remember most about the process of writing a book with thirteen other people?
The people. We formed incredibly close relationships together and had a great deal of fun. When you are involved with Kesey, you are going to have fun.
What did you learn from writing Caverns?
First and foremost, to be kind and generous with each other’s work. Honest, of course, but kind and generous. He insisted on it.
Kesey really showed us the meaning of story, and how to weave story through a narrative. Kesey taught us that writers do not create stories, they discover them. For instance, the difference between what we think of as genre fiction and literature has to do with process. Does the writer begin with an ending or idea, and then force characters to act out that idea? Or, does a writer start with a group of characters with a need and then follow them as they take action to satisfy that need? There is a big difference between the two.
Kesey, in a quote that would become famous, said to us the first day of class, “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but 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.”
Kesey saw writing as a form of magic, evoking magic, and the description is apt.
What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?
First, that he was brilliant on so many levels. He lived his life as an adventure and experiment. He was a true warrior. The other thing was his generosity and commitment. The twelve of us were in and out of his house in Eugene at all hours of the day and night, and no matter when one of us or a group of us was there, he came down and would sit with us, watch what we were doing, suggest, cajole, applaud. He literally turned his life over to the class for the time he taught it, and led us through the process of writing a novel. We learned by doing it with him, a man who had been down the road a few times before us. It was an incredible experience.
How do you feel about the book as a finished product?
I love Caverns. It is fun and a great ride. Much of the language is wonderful and, as Kesey said, the characters are a group that would make Chaucer grin.
Then, in 1984, his son Jed died in a car accident at 21. Work on the Alaska book stopped. Kesey stopped. “The death of a child makes a wound that never heals,” he said. I wondered, watching him in those first classes, if writing “Caverns” might not jump-start the Alaska book.
Each student created a character for the book; we defined the characters by need, what they wanted. “When the characters act to satisfy their needs, we’ve got plot,” Kesey said. For setting, Kesey wanted to go to a time and place where none of us had been, explaining, “The write-what-you-know saw is bull. Fiction is discovery, not exposition.” We chose 1934, the year before Kesey was born. “Let’s go down a hole, into the American psyche, into caverns measureless to man,” he said. “Caverns” became our title.
Merry Pranksters, famous writers, popular musicians and counterculture icons dropped in to visit the class. We drank, smoked weed, listened to Kesey’s running monologue as he flipped between Oregon Ducks football, Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring,” Bill Moyers’ Joseph Campbell interviews, the “Singing Detective,” the 1937 movie “Lost Horizons” and Tod Browning’s “Freaks. ” I felt vital, part of something great. The book, however, was in trouble.
“Caverns” dissolved into self-conscious purple prose. In a forthcoming memoir about the class, “Writing Under the Influence,” fellow student Jane Sather writes, “Taking home an assignment, having days to stew over it … to worry about the style and tone … before reading it aloud in front of Kesey – – was nerve-wracking. I didn’t polish my work, I ground it to dust.” By Christmas, only 60 pages of unfortunate dust had settled in Kesey’s walnut inbox.
Winter term, Kesey introduced a new paradigm. We broke each chapter into 14 segments, wrote cues on slips and drew the slips from a hat. Then we tried to connect the segments. Kesey set a deadline: “Write for an hour, then we’ll read it aloud into a tape deck.” That day we produced 60 solid pages.
The book was no longer purple, self-conscious or forced. It was fun.
Ken Kesey was fun. Everything the guy touched carried his Day-Glo absurdity. “Caverns” was born from a wine and weed-infused parlor game and inevitably carried the markings of its production: literary allusions, long- winded metaphors, alliterations and snide asides. “Caverns” was not going to be another “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Our book was not going to redefine the novel. Kesey had, however, successfully redefined the writing workshop.
I hadn’t learned so much about writing since kindergarten. I often went to the Hilyard house after my shift at a local restaurant. Kesey always came down to sit behind me while I edited. He rolled joints, encouraged, pointed out images from earlier in the book that could be reused to advance the plot and solidify themes. He taught me to use verbs to unify our many narrative voices; to shift point of view with diction, drifting subtly from the narrator to a mouse’s mind, to an opium-addled trumpet player’s mind, using only word choice and syntax to carry the reader.
My 15 minutes of fame was sweet when Viking Press finally published “Caverns” in 1990. I spent over an hour telling a Deadhead reporter from Rolling Stone about the frustrating first months, about Kesey’s brilliant pedagogical innovation, about the plot’s mythmaking underpinnings. When I finished, he moved his butter plate to the side, leaned closer and said, “Tell me about his next project,” as if corralling 13 overeducated egos, co- authoring a novel with them, editing it and selling the product in a year’s time was not enough. The reporter was a fan. He, like I and others, wanted Kesey to write another triumph. Its success would be a victory, proving that the alternative lifestyle and values Kesey promoted were valid and so were we. Most reviewers panned “Caverns.” All focused more on Kesey and our method than the story and characters. Kesey said, “It’s a hell of a lot better than anything Danielle Steel ever wrote.” It didn’t sell as well, however.
After the class, Kesey hired me as farmhand, and I joined the Pleasant Hill scene. Kesey’s expansive generosity drew people to the farm like ticks to a dog’s soft belly. Kesey’s farm looked mundane — a big red barn with a sky- blue star painted on the huge hayloft door, a cinderblock building standing at right angles, a low-slung log lodge with patched tarpaper roof sagging beside it, a moss-covered school bus rotting restfully in the swamp. Normalcy was a veneer, however, hiding Kesey’s Day-Glo amplified high-wattage art; the moss- covered relic was Furthur, the original Magic Bus.
The log building was a studio packed with film reels, editing machines, projectors, sound equipment, computers, monitors. The floor was a writhing snake pit of cables and cords; the walls pulsed with mandalas. “Caverns” energized Kesey. He cleared his desk of old projects, first publishing “The Further Inquiry,” his long-delayed answer to Wolfe’s “Acid Test,” then two children’s books, “Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear” and “The Sea Lion.” He also bought another old school bus and, with other original Pranksters, prepared the new incarnation of Further — the original misspelling long since corrected — for brave psychedelic forays into George Bush Sr.’s America. The rolling party performance art that was Further suited Kesey’s disposition better than solitary hours writing. The tripped-out tapestry of lurid icons and images woven along Further’s side, the happenings they staged, the famous faces, drew local media away from Iraqi boogiemen, at least for a day, and told a different, more hopeful, story. Capacity crowds filled bookstores, museums and college campuses. Hold-over aging longhairs, fortysomething lawyers, insurance salesmen, hedge fund managers, techies, regressed into high-minded hippies, their faded heirloom tie-dyes straining against middle-aged paunches as they shyly slid tattered books toward Kesey to autograph. College kids and young punks, Gen Xers, hippie kids, skaters, all flocked to the readings. Further, performance art, the party, consumed more and more of Kesey’s time. Between trips to Seattle, Berkeley and Las Vegas, among other pit stops, he worked on the Alaska book.
Eventually Kesey’s health faltered and he went to the Mayo Clinic for tests. I went out to the farm one afternoon after he got back. Faye was busy in the kitchen with lunch. Kesey sat at the table, slicing waxy wedges of cheddar from an orange brick. I asked him about the Mayo. The worst issue was diabetes. He showed me a small blood-sugar reader — brand new technology then — they gave him to manage the disease. I opened a bottle of wine I’d brought. Kesey pricked his finger and squeezed a drop of blood onto a paper strip. He slipped the paper into a slot on the machine, then pushed an empty juice glass my way. The machine measured the insulin in Kesey’s blood.
Suddenly Faye loomed before me, large, her soft face hard, her eyes narrow. “That is the last thing he needs!” she said in a sharp, clipped voice.
I faltered, idiocy and shame flushing my face. Kesey said evenly, “Today ain’t the day, Faye.” The door burst open, and Ken Babbs, the longtime Prankster who lived down the road, bounced into the room, breaking the moment, his monologue already up to speed, a buzz on. He saw the wine, poured a glass and drank without interrupting his rap. Faye left. I drank.
Kesey pressed ahead on the Alaska book, “Sailor Song,” despite diabetes and the merry chaos on the farm. And after 30 years, Kesey, Zane and Ken Babbs’ sons finally had the technology needed to synchronize the soundtrack with the LSD-addled miles of riotous images the Pranksters had shot on the first bus trip. Zane taped hours of the new Further to add into the mix. Kesey asked my wife, Allison, a modern dance instructor, to bring some dancers and drummers out Halloween night for a shoot.
The pace that night was quick, actions falsely urgent, frenetic. The farm was crowded, people wound up and dosed, a happening without precedence, a ceremony without tradition. Kesey directed: parking the bus out in the middle of a pasture, building a huge bonfire nearby, cannibalizing a 20-foot razor- sharp sheet-metal arrow from defunct roofing, painting the dancers’ “fire nymph” bodies in lurid colors, draping them strategically with scarves, positioning the cameras, distributing African masks to ghouls, setting up a large tom-tom on Further’s roof, mixing perfect margaritas, rolling a cluster of joints and feeding the cows all at once with great bluster, confusion, enthusiasm and manufactured importance.
Heat and the ultra-bright fire forced video cameras back until the bus was a speck, the dancers indiscernible. All input from the players fell beneath the wheels of Kesey’s vaguely articulated vodka-driven vision. Some decided, what the hell, and took LSD. Others got drunk and wobbled about, leering at the dancers. By midnight, tripods stood abandoned in empty pastures, masks leaned against fence posts, as scanty scarves lay in a heap on the bathroom floor.
Another night, the house full of pilgrims who had climbed on the bus at a reading and ridden back to the farm, Kesey enlisted me as shill for the magic trick he had done for our class. I felt special, like a Prankster. “Click your fingernails to tell me warmer,” he said. With my index finger pressed against my thumb, I pulled my finger down until my fingernail made a sharp, distinct click as it snapped over my thumbnail. Kesey nodded. “Yeah.” But the room never quieted, click, the rowdy pilgrims never as attentive as our class, the dog’s nails on the plywood floor misled, and click, the electric clock whirred, and click, people shifted or, click, popped beers while Kesey fumbled blindfolded, demanding “quiet and concentration” until he tore off the blindfold and stormed from the room. Sustained, awkward silence followed until a musician picked up a guitar and filled the vacuum.
Early morning, my wife led me unsteadily to our car. I handed her the keys. A light burned in the second-story office, Kesey visible through the sliding glass doors, his green writing visor pulled low on his forehead. He stood, manuscript pages in one hand, the other on his hip.
A few days later, winter’s first rain drove Allison and me from repairing fences into Kesey’s warm log studio. Kesey sat, a tank of nitrous oxide and wine bottle beside him, gas-glazed eyes fixed across green fields where the foothills disappeared into a swollen sky. Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” echoed into the rain from the Day-Glo speakers hung about the farm.
We tossed our dripping jackets on the floor and sat. We drank and talked about the rain, about farming, about logging. The mountain at the end of the valley had been recently logged, one of the last in the area to be cut. In 1991, logging was at full throttle as loggers tried to get the remaining old growth before environmentalists protected it as spotted owl habitat. “I think I have funding for a book,” I told him, “about the history of logging in northern Minnesota. We’re moving to Ely to do the research.”
“Can’t do the work here?”
“There’s not much more for us here,” I said.
Kesey gave us a straight look, his blue eyes leveled. “Yeah,” he said, “Probably best to get out. Sounds like a good opportunity.” He put the hose into his mouth and turned the valve. He breathed. His gaze became unfocused. His head nodded. As the hissing hose slipped from his hand, I took it and put it into my mouth. The metallic-tasting gas distorted reality, separating moments into distinct frames: Allison’s husky voice, “Saw you working the other night,” the rain gray hills like vague clouds, the wet denim smell rising from our pants. She asked, “How is the book coming?” Kesey croaked, “The book, always the novel.” His voice sounded forced. “I’m sorry,” Allison said quickly. Then blackness closed in, and I heard only the angry gas.
When the fog cleared, Kesey held his face in his hands, his elbows on his knees, his sky-blue eyes pooled with tears. My heart sank. “I feel like I’m dating Emily Bronte,” he said. “I just don’t care about novels anymore.” Even laughing gas could not take the edge off. Allison put her hand on his shoulder. I mumbled, “It’s cool. Don’t finish the damn book.” Kesey was silent for a long time. Tears fell down his cheeks and dropped to the floor, mingling with the winter rain from our coats. I turned off the tank. He sighed, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and said, “I’ll finish ‘Sailor Song.’ It’s like Faulkner says, sometimes the old dog has got to chase a bear just to keep calling himself a dog.”
By the second bottle of wine, Kesey said, “America is hard on writers. I call it the Hemingway complex. Who I am, my persona, stands behind my characters. It’s as though I’m holding a mask out in front of me and writing through the mask. Who you get is me behind the mask. You don’t get that from Shakespeare, or Mark Twain. I have no idea who Melville was, but Ahab will stalk around in my attic for the rest of my life, and that’s how it ought to be.” Kesey the messenger had become the message. When Hemingway the hunter became Hemingway the hunted, he slipped a shotgun into his mouth and tripped the trigger with his toe. Kerouac’s “Road” ended in his mother’s Florida ranch house, Kerouac’s magnificent youth bloated, unshaven, angry and sodden. McMurphy, the quixotic figure tilting his lance at “the combine” blurred with Kesey, the lance transformed into a Magic Bus. Allison and I arrived in northern Minnesota about a month later. We lived in a log building at the end of railroad grade abandoned a century before. Our truck rumbled over remnant tamarack ties as we crossed low spots driving deeper into forest that had grown up after the loggers left.
Winter came with great violence a week after we arrived, one storm dumping 56 inches in three days. Our winding road was snow-covered for the next nine months. Winter nights in northern Minnesota were 16 hours long. Drinking was more than pastime or party, it was a depression-driven blood sport.
I had to drive 100 miles south to Duluth to buy “Sailor Song.” The bookstore clerk had my copy waiting at the counter. A beautiful Northwest totem dominated the cover. I went to a nearby coffee shop, a small place with a window seat overlooking the harbor, to spend a long comfortable day reading.
The first sentence of “Notion” is: “Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River …” It is the overture of a great symphony.
I opened “Sailor Song,” and read: “Ike Sallas was asleep when it began, in a red aluminum Galaxxy, not all that far away and only a short skip into the future. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times — and that wasn’t even the half of it.” This was no symphony. It was a comedic opera. A good one, but still; I could hear giggling in the background, hear Kesey laughing through his paper-thin mask, and it distracted. “Sailor Song” received disappointing reviews. “Last Go ‘Round,” in 1994, endured worse. Kesey suffered a stroke.
My book slipped through my fingers like sand. The research ground on, endless; the threads of my narrative unraveled like gauze. I never had enough time, never enough quiet, never enough. Our wilderness house was always full. My book was a simple history, but I was still trapped by expectations. Friends, family, librarians unknowingly asked me a writer’s worst question, “How’s the book coming?” Well, my relationship with Emily Bronte was not good. I continued to write but fearful monologues created such a cacophony I could hardly hear my own voice; fears of failing to live up to the promise of my past, of squandering current opportunity, of never being able to organize and present the material, wound my unsprung mind tighter and tighter and tighter until there was no give, no time left to think, never mind write, and alcohol, which had once created a chemically induced NOW that kept fears at bay, only increased the terrible tension.
I quit drinking.
The spring unwound.
I began to write. In a moment of clarity, I saw Kesey’s trap. I saw the terrible conundrum of chemical enlightenment, saw how the myths we create to define us eventually hold us captive and demand ransom. Many friends resisted my lifestyle change, feeling that my sobriety was a judgment upon them. I couldn’t imagine how strongly Kesey felt this pressure. For him it was public. Rabid right-wingers had long attacked him and the 1960s, trying to marginalize his message. Would Kesey’s sobriety have handed them a victory?
A generation lined up behind Kesey’s Day-Glo standard, bought books, posters, bumper stickers, T-shirts, calendars, blotter art, tapes, videos — the Kesey brand. What would have happened to the message if the messenger went straight? Would the thousands who came to see Kesey prod and prank the right abandon a dry icon?
The Acid Tests and Further were sublime, important art, stretching boundaries, continuing America’s arrested westward expansion on highways, in literature, within individual biochemistries, creating a collective conscious, defining a historical context. It was serious work. It also exacted a physical price, consumed a lot of time, created a vortex of people and made impossible Kesey’s earlier authorial voice. One art ruled the other.
A year sober, the book progressing well, baby on the way, love rather than chaos filling our house, I thought about the day I had turned Kesey’s blood sugar tester into a drinking game and I flinched from the shame of being so selfish.
I wrote Kesey a letter to apologize for that afternoon, and offered my sobriety as amends. I explained that even though my drug use had been a political stance, a social perspective, an artistic idea, a rage against the “material madness” he claimed killed Neal Cassady, sobriety negated nothing. Sobriety was a victory, not a defeat, it forged shame into humility. Failure blossomed into success.
I could never send the letter. Few were as self-aware as Kesey, and my rose-colored revelations would be nothing new to him. Instead, I finished the logging book. In July 2001, we drove from Minneapolis to Eugene to show off our infant daughter, Billie, and see old Oregon friends. We drove out to Pleasant Hill one afternoon to visit Ken and Faye, turned down the drive and parked. The farm was silent, parking lot empty; friends, Pranksters, occasional celebrities, road-roughened pilgrims, scenemakers, all gone. The Day-Glo speakers, which had long blasted rock ‘n’ roll across the valley, were silent. There were no paints, props or tools littering the yard. Only a few favorite cows grazed the pasture. The hay was uncut, the vegetable garden fallow, the bus barn dark and silent.
Kesey was so still that I did not see him as we got out of the car. I surveyed the place. It was beautiful, dry, the pastures orange and brown. I spotted Kesey, standing not 20 feet away in paint-splattered coveralls, hands on hips, watching. He strode over and hugged us. His embrace was firm, warm, rooted. He explained that the quiet was because he’d moved his office off-site, down to a little gas station strip mall at the junction, a three-room suite jammed with computers, editing equipment and tape duplication machines. Zane marketed “The Movie,” titled “Intrepid Traveler and His Merry Band of Pranksters Look for a Kool Place, Episode One,” from www.intrepidtrips.com, along with other feel-good paraphernalia and Kesey’s artwork.
The site was not yet secure, so people could not pay online. Instead, they placed orders and Key-Z productions sent the tapes off with a suggested price. Honor system.
“Is it working?” I asked.
Kesey’s blue eyes glittered merrily. “Ain’t broke yet,” he said.
We sat at the kitchen table. Kesey cut an apple to share. He didn’t offer me any wine, but I almost told him I was sober anyway. Courage failed me. Maybe I was afraid Kesey would think I had abandoned old ideals, or would think less of me. Maybe I was afraid I’d be a thorn in his side. Instead, I told him that I’d sold the logging book and had started a novel.
He smiled, “Good, good.”
On Sept. 17, 2001, Kesey’s birthday, I e-mailed him:
Happy birthday Ken:
Are you 66? I can’t remember. Anyway, Allie and I have been on the bounce and didn’t get a card in the mail but wanted to let you know that you are in our thoughts. I hope the next year brings you health and happiness.
We remember our days in Eugene and your many, many kindnesses with great fondness. Happy birthday. Hope you had a great day, despite the dark events of the last week.
Jeff, Allie and Billie
Jeff — Yeah 66. Ain’t that a bitch? One of my main complaints is all these dings from previous abuses sidling forward with complaints and demands and mumbling threats. How’s things?
Three weeks later, a dark spot on Kesey’s liver bloomed like an evil mushroom. Surgery failed. He died the next week. The unrelenting winter rain he described so brilliantly in “Notion” began the week before his funeral. A bank of cold, rain-swollen clouds two thousand miles across buried Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The rain was cold, steady and inexorable. Locals figured the damp misery would last until spring.
Friends and family pitched in with shovels and dug Ken’s grave beside his son Jed’s three days through dense clay in unrelenting Oregon rain. Pranksters built Kesey’s coffin of clear pine and dipped it like a video box in swirling neon.
The hour of the funeral, a beam of light broke through the clouds and shone down, igniting the crazy Day-Glo Kesey had spread about the farm, bringing his coffin alive with color.
People spoke of Kesey’s generosity, his kindness, his bravery, his genius, his friendship. Catholics anointed him, Buddhists chanted, Jews said Kaddish, a Christian blessed him, an American Indian called his soul home from the four directions. We formed a line, touching him, tucking talismans, crystals, beads, ribbons, flowers, buds, a wooden flute, into the coffin or his pockets.
I waited in line. I had never seen an unembalmed corpse. The skin was ashen. The hands jutted stiffly from his black shirt and seemed to hover just off his thighs, the head tilted back upon a small pillow unnaturally and a red Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” beret perched on his head. His feet splayed awkwardly in black cowboy boots. It looked like Kesey was trying to catch himself from a fall. He was gone.
My heart pounded. Tears blurred the pasture, the old bus in the swamp, the burn scar from a fire-nymph bonfire years earlier. My tears blurred Kesey’s awkward corpse until I could almost imagine the young man who had once lived in that body. His brother, son, nephews and friends nailed the colorful lid on Kesey’s coffin.
“Oh, I remember when he took his first breath,” his mother, Geneva, gasped. “He should be breathing. But he just wouldn’t listen.” Faye, composed, strong like soil, pulled her close. They lowered the bright, beautiful coffin into the ground, threw the ropes in after it and began to fill the hole.
Kesey was right. Writers must pay for what they do to their characters, must be affected by the realities they create. The spadefuls of earth pounded that coffin like a tom-tom. One of the greatest novelists of the 20th century dead of liver failure at 66. Suddenly, a scene from the end of his first novel came to me, and I could hear the Chief’s clipped voice saying:
“It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.” It was best I hadn’t sent the letter. His public demanded that Kesey remain Kesey and stay on the bus he had built, locked into a self- created myth. Kesey, however, was responsible; he’d raised the walls and created the myth. Only he could have freed himself as only I could have freed myself. None of the boosters, friends – not even Faye or his mother — could have saved him any more than the men on the ward could have saved McMurphy.
Friends and family buried Kesey, tossing in a few shovelfuls, then passing the shovel. The pungent, organic smell of wet Oregon soil filled my lungs as I pushed the shovel into the heavy, rain-soaked clay and dumped it into the hole. It landed with a heavy thud. I threw in another, and another. Graves are big, deep and terribly dark. It took long, continuous labor to bury Ken Kesey.
His tombstone read: “Sparks fly upwards.” The day after I returned home from Kesey’s funeral was a beautiful fall day, a day that almost justified the approaching winter, a day like the first hopeful day I’d met Kesey. I put my letter to him in my pocket, loaded my daughter, Billie, into her Radio Flyer wagon and walked to the park. I burned Kesey’s letter in a picnic grate. Fall wind fanned the flames. Smoke and sparks spiraled into the blue, blue sky.
KEN KESEY: Two years after his death, the books are still coming. Are they evidence of genius, or a literary career wasted?
- By Tim Appelo
- Monday, October 9, 2006 12:00am
Kesey: like Faulkner
One night in the 1950s, Malcolm Cowley, the Stanford writing teacher who made William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey famous, declined his student Kesey’s offer of a cup of green hallucinogenic Kool-Aid from a punch bowl billowing sinister clouds of dry-ice smoke. “It looks like the sort of punch that Satan would serve,” observed Cowley, who drank Kesey’s grandma’s Arkansas bootleg whiskey instead. In Robert Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers, the character based on Kesey is “Doctor Dope,” a self-sacrificing guru whose followers think he is God.
So what was Kesey, devil or deity? Conservatives decry his flabbergastingly irresponsible acid evangelism; when he died two years ago, eulogists stressed his saintly side. Now that his celebrated bus, Further, has long since literally conveyed him to the grave, it’s a better time to put Kesey to the moral acid test: He belongs to the ages, not his mourners, and this winter marks his literary last stand.
Two new books are almost certainly the final volumes to whip up the patchouli twister of his prose: Kesey’s Jail Journal, composed during his six-month 1967 pot-bust hitch in San Mateo County Jail, and Spit in the Ocean: All About Kesey, distinguished writer and old Kesey chum Ed McClanahan’s collection of the Prankster Pope’s own witty encyclicals, touching letters to friends, and rare interviews and essays from 1968 to 2001, plus reminiscences from Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gus Van Sant, Bill Walton, Paul Krassner, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurtry.
When Kesey forsook literature in 1964 to become a man of lettersLSDdid he blow it? Or did he ignite a refining fire that still burns bright at the heart of every rave in America? Did drugs make him, or undo him? Was Cowley right to believe it would’ve been better had Kesey just said no to the Bus, shackled himself to his typewriter, batted out more books, and steered clear of public acts of shameless shaman magic?
THE HUMILIATION OF CREATION
“Being shackled to anything, even a typewriter, just wasn’t in Ken’s nature,” McClanahan opines. “The stage and magic, on the other hand, were very much in his nature.”
The Jail Journal proves McClanahan’s point. Even in actual shackles, Kesey defiantly kept conducting symphonies of trouble with his magic wand. Originally titled Cut the Motherfuckers Loose, the book portrays one cut-loose motherfucker. The psychedelectable Day-Glo pen drawings of convicts and fantasias, idylls and race riots, showcase his little-known visual imagination, a style that recalls by turns Peter Max, William Blake, Fillmore rock posters’ unruly wraparound lettering, the transgressive collages of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton, and Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange.
The very possession of pens and paper was forbidden Keseyhe was sure to use them to stab back at authority. So he was unwise to scribble this book on the sly and smuggle it out as contraband concealed in porn mags whose pages he stuck together to discourage guards from inspecting them. He let visitors prankishly slip him “four STP tabs couple of psilocybin pills and five good old Owsley purples!” Under the guards’ noses, he took a mind-blown skinny-dip in the prison pool”without taking the mandatory shower.” Crazily, he stashed this diary of crimes in progress inside a hollowed-out book in a fellow inmate’s cell. One day a deputy asked him point-blank if he was loaded. Pin-pupilled on opium, Kesey said, “Allow me to make one thing clear before we continue our conversation . . . I’ll lie to you.”
The Jail Journal may not be strictly factual, but it’s an authentically exuberant, sardonic slice of the Summer of Love behind bars; Spit in the Ocean is more poignant and retrospective, a fond, funerary Festschrift of Stony Age scholarship. Both show that Kesey wasn’t about partying in the modern, mindless sense. He believed his kind of questing partying might save the world, one soul at a timeor hey! Maybe everyone at once, if he could only get his magic act together. Like the Acid Test, the Journal is an attempt to fuse all sensations and artistic means into one ecstatic new form of expression in which (as the Kesey character says in Dog Soldiers) “there was absolutely no difference between thought and action.”
In the Spit book, Robert Stone (who is penning his own memoir about “Doctor Dope”) says that Kesey was out to transcend the whole business of making books: “I think he believed that he could somehow invent a spiritual technology, somewhere between Silva mind control and the transistor, that would spare all the humiliating labor that went into the creating of art.”
CANNIBALIZED BY THE MERRY PRANKSTER
Like virtually every literary experiment, Kesey’s was largely a failure. The Journal succeeds in seizing a moment or three, but it’s utterly inferior to his first forbidden text, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, done during his 1950s stint working at the VA hospital near Stanford. As he notes in the Journal, the jail scene was very like the VA hospital; he composed under similar circumstances, sketching patients on his employer’s time, “jumping every time I heard a lock rattle and stuffing the pages out of sight in the wastepaper basket.
Despite being frightened by the military nurse who ran the place, he defied authority and inevitably got fired. He transmogrified her into Big Nurse, the personification of tyranny, and the VA patients into the novel’s vivid characters (see sidebar, p. 28).
By trying to fuse thought and action and bypass traditional art, he accomplishes nothing comparable in the Journal. Cuckoo attained greatness thanks to a lucky combination of inspiration and perspiration visions and many, many revisions paring the experience down to a pure parable as simple as a pop tune or a nursery rhyme. In the Journal, and too often after, Kesey tried to get by on visions alone. Though he wrote some lovely pieces later in lifehis elegy for John Lennon, his tribute to the Pendleton Roundup with co-writer Ken Babbsthe sustained masterpieces that sprang from his LSD days were written by others: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Stone’s National Book Award winner Dog Soldiers, which is in part a debate about Kesey’s legacy. In Stone’s book, the Kesey character’s apostate apostle calls his ambitious acid crusade “a flash”the slang term for an LSD trip, which he considers a meaningless cultural flash in the pan. “It was our responsibility,” retorts the Kesey character. “We should’ve stayed with that flash forever.”
Why didn’t Kesey nab that award with his own work? He stayed with that flash foreverlived the high life. “He let the Merry Prankster persona swallow everything else, let it take over and cannibalize his role as a writer,” says David O. Weddle, who covered Kesey for Rolling Stone. “His life is a cautionary, perhaps even tragic, tale of the cost of celebrity and catastrophe of success for American artists. But in classic tragedy, the fall from grace throws into relief the magnificence of the hero’s achievements.” Kesey might argue that taking the plunge was his achievement. “Ken had a little joke,” writes Stone, “a little jingle on himself. He said, ‘Of offering more than what I can deliver, I have a bad habit, it’s true./But I have to offer more than what I can deliver, to be able to deliver what I do.’”
Kesey had bad drug habits, but they were complicatedly and not entirely badin some ways inspiring his creativity, but ultimately stifling it. He began as about the most abstemious major American writer this side of Pearl S. Buck. “He drank on his wedding night when he was a sophomore in college,” says Kesey scholar and friend Bennett Huffman, “and then he hadn’t had a drink [until] he moved to California [as a grad student].”
Eight peyote buttons gave Kesey the skeleton key to Cuckoo. The novel hadn’t been jelling when written in the third person, but that fateful cacti encounter supplied him with the hallucinatory opening-scene reverie of the novel’s half-mad first-person narrator. Cowley convinced Kesey to trim back the overwritten passages, helping to save him from the “first thought, best thought” folly that ruined Kerouac, whom Cowley thought “was corrupted by the notion that every word that fell from his lips was more or less sacred.” Kesey was always more skeptical and self-critical than peers like Allen Ginsberg and the jaunty fraud and admanlike hack Tim Leary. At least Kesey never OD’d on ego.
He wrote his second masterpiece under the overwhelming influence of Faulkner and amphetamines. “Ken was taking speed for 30 hours a block when he wrote Notion,” says Huffman. “He’d stay up for a day and a half just doing nothing but writing nonstop and then sleep for 12 hours and then do it again.” Just as Absalom, Absalom! is both powered and muddled by Faulkner’s end-stage alcoholism, Sometimes a Great Notion shrieks and grinds with speedy confusion. When Kesey writes, “Come look: the hysterical crashing of the Wakonda Agua River,” the hysterical river in question is his own stream of consciousness. Then came the Bus and the Acid Tests, which swept away his concentration with a hysteria theretofore unprecedented.
Kesey complained in later years that getting older deprived him of the mental powers to write another book as complex as Notion. “He always attributed it to aging, but that wasn’t it, because a lot of people write great stuff late in life,” says Jeff Forester, a co-author of Caverns, the 1990 novel Kesey composed with his University of Oregon writing students, and a forthcoming memoir of that experience, Writing Under the Influence. “It was a lifestyle thing. A novel is such a long, complicated thing that you can’t smoke pot and keep it all sitting in your head.” On speed, writing Notion, says Huffman, “When Kesey woke up 12 hours later he could remember the work that he’d done before, so he could carry on, where if you’re writing on pot, you can’t remember.”
MOUNTING AN INSURRECTION
“You wished that he would get serious,” says Huffman. “We knew that if he could just, um, break a leg or something, throw his back out, something that could keep him indoors alone at his desk, he would write another great novel, but he never broke his leg. He had a stroke in ’97, and by ’99 he’s touring with the Bus in Great Britain. Back at the same old Kesey moving carnival show rather than sitting down and writing the next serious novel.
Forester says writing a novel with Kesey was serious fun, anyhow. “I mean, the class was a party. Being around Kesey was a constant party.” The first day of class, Kesey assigned Forester to roll joints for the seminar; one student sparked up and passed out. “Fell to the groundout cold. One student says, ‘Omigosh, is he OK? We should call someone!’ Ken just stepped over the body and handed me the joint and just kept talking. Ken said, ‘Aw, he’ll be OK.’” A couple of minutes later, he was. “The first class, you pass outhow cool was that?” says Forester.
The Caverns pot party both was and wasn’t cool for Kesey’s career. It generated scant literary buzz, but did get him back in the habit of sitting down and writing, twice a week. Sailor Song and the other autumnal books that Caverns freed him up to write can’t match his first two, but they have their fans. “There are those fleeting moments of startling imagery, or well-observed events that gleam like the shards of a once-great but now shattered talent,” says Weddle. “Unfortunately, too much of the book is dominated by that glib, self-consciously clever, alliteration-happy voice of Kesey’s later years. He was aware of the problem.”
Literary vice wasn’t his main problem. Ominously, Caverns made Kesey revert to old notions of composing. “At the end when we were kinda getting to crunch time,” says Forester, “it seemed like Ken was in the office 24/7, and there was this little vial that was stashed in a corner cabinet that had some, I think it was like grain alcohol or something that had some speed in it. Just a couple of drops of that in your drink or your coffee, and it was days, you know, and we just kinda churned through this thing and it really affected his health. By the end of the class he ended up in the Mayo Clinic.”
In the end, acid had nothing to do with Kesey’s fate. His liver failed, thanks to cancer following hepatitis C, which also killed Kesey’s pals Ginsberg and Steve “Zonker” Lambrecht, who inspired Doonesbury‘s Zonker. Most people get hepatitis C from promiscuous sex (not Kesey’s thing) or needles. Kesey’s Jail Journal talks about his injections of speed. But his ultimate enemy was alcohol. “That’s the horrible truth, that Ken drank himself to death,” says Forester. “Even after he found out he had hepatitis C, he kept drinking. He had diabetes but he kept drinking, and he just wasn’t gonna stop. Weddle once asked him, ‘Did drugs ruin you?’ He said, ‘No, I know what’s done me harm, and it’s not LSD or marijuana, it’s too many vodka martinis.’ So he was self-aware, unlike most addicts.” Like Carrie Fisher, he sought mind expansion and pain reduction only to wind up with pain expansion and mind reduction. Weddle, the biographer of Sam Peckinpah, compares Kesey to that cinematic genius who also self-destructed on drugs and booze. “At his funeral, Peckinpah’s close friend Robert Culp said, ‘Let’s not obsess over all the movies he never got to make. Let’s instead rejoice over the fact that there is a Wild Bunch at all. That he managed to get it made is a miracle, given the odds against it.’” McClanahan insists that Kesey smuggled plenty of miracles past his demons. “I mean, 11 books, including two indisputably great ones, ain’t badfor the record, I think the jailbook ranks a close third.”
In the end, it’s crucial to consider Kesey’s work in terms of its influence on people, because he was essentially social, a performer who could not long endure the solitary writer’s life. No doubt the reality-scrambling potations he touted did harm to some, but his imagination could also rescramble reality for the better. One Oregon mental patient reportedly lost his Billy Bibbit-like crippling stutter as a result of the inspirational effect of working on the Cuckoo’s Nest film. Paul McCartney says Magical Mystery Tour was inspired by Kesey. His entire life can be seen as the most influential bus ride since Rosa Parks’.
In Spit in the Ocean, Krassner relates how he and Kesey very nearly died by falling in the ocean in 1971: They climbed into a tunnel carved into a cliff during World War II (so lookouts could scan the ocean for enemy ships), found a “meek little mouse” in the tunnel, and blew hashish smoke into its face until the mouse reared up and squeaked in protest. “This display of mouse assertiveness startled us, and we almost fell off the cliff.” What a perfect death! Better than John Lennon’s near death during Sgt. Pepper, when he took a handful of aspirin that turned out to be acid and came within inches of walking off Abbey Road’s rooftop, exclaiming, “Look at the stars!” Kesey looked at the people instead; he inhaled in order to exhale insurrectionary orders, rallying the suburban mice of the Earth to rise up and roar in rebellion.