Pubdate: Sun, 11 Nov 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Author: Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Hallucinogens)


Obituary: Author Of 'Cuckoo's Nest' And Leader Of LSD-Fueled Pranksters Was 66.

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 

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 

Art, he believed, was the opposition force and held the possibility of 

"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

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 

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.



Here is an excerpt from Ken Kesey's first novel, "One Flew Over the 
Cuckoo's Nest." In this excerpt, Kesey's protagonist, the massive Chief 
Bromden, tears the control panel from the floor of the tub room at the 
mental hospital and hurls it through the wall to make his escape.


"The moon straining through the screen of the tub-room windows showed the 
hunched, heavy shape of the control panel, glinted off the chrome fixtures 
and glass gauges so cold I could almost hear the click of it striking. I 
took a deep breath and bent over and took the levers. I heaved my legs 
under me and felt the grind of weight at my feet. I heaved again and heard 
the wires and connections tearing out of the floor. I lurched it up to my 
knees and was able to get an arm around it and my other hand under it. The 
chrome was cold against my neck and the side of my head. I put my back 
toward the screen, then spun and let the momentum carry the panel through 
the screen and window with a ripping crash. The glass splashed out in the 
moon, like a bright cold water baptizing the sleeping earth. Panting, I 
thought for a second about going back and getting Scanlon and some of the 
others, but then I heard the running squeak of the black boys' shoes in the 
hall and I put my hand on the sill and vaulted after the panel, into the 

In this excerpt from Kesey's second novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion," the 
Stamper family's life on the Oregon land is brought into focus.


"The family was living in a feed store in town when it was very cold, and 
the rest of the time in the big tent across the river where they were 
working on the house, which, like everything else in the land, grew on and 
on with slow, mute obstinacy over the months, seemingly in spite of all 
Jonas could do to delay it. The house itself had begun to haunt Jonas; the 
larger it became the more frantic and trapped he felt. 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."
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