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Artist As Outlaw 

The Legacy of Ken Kesey

Thursday, Dec 9 2010

It's been nine years since the death of Ken Kesey, the author whom Tom Wolfe proclaimed "one of the most important American writers of the second half of the 20th century." Yet there has not been one major biography of this extraordinary figure, who dramatically transformed American society.

The good news is that such a book is in the works. Robert Faggen, a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, who has published a number of important works on Robert Frost, has been laboring on a family-authorized biography since Kesey's death, drawing upon the extensive personal papers and manuscripts in the Kesey archives. Faggen hopes to publish his book in about a year and a half.

The bad news is that in the meantime, Kesey is a sitting duck for cheap-shot artists who dash off slapdash pseudobiographies that traffic in rumor, half-truths and casual character assassination — in short, the sport of urinating on a great man's grave.

click to enlarge Vintage Ken Kesey "blotter art" measures 7.5 x 7.5 inches and is perfectly perforated into 900 absorbent squares that liquid LSD was sometimes dropped onto.
  • Vintage Ken Kesey "blotter art" measures 7.5 x 7.5 inches and is perfectly perforated into 900 absorbent squares that liquid LSD was sometimes dropped onto.

The first of these shoddy volumes has arrived on bookstore shelves: Acid Jesus, by Mark Christensen (Schaffer Press, 449 pages). The ostensive premise of this pathetic effort is the author's quest to understand why Kesey, once considered the most promising author of his generation, tossed aside a literary career to become a leader of the 1960s psychedelic counterculture.

It quickly becomes evident that Christensen is not interested in understanding Kesey but in passing judgment on him. He dismisses the author's first two novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and his masterpiece, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), as hollow works populated by stock characters and clichéd plot devices — a grotesque distortion that ignores the vivid, complex and nuanced characters Kesey crafted in both books, as well as his profound and complex exploration of subjective reality that is unsurpassed in American literature.

Many disagree with Christensen's glib value judgments, including Richard Ford, author of The Sportswriter. "Sometimes a Great Notion is one of the great, great books written by an American, hands down," Ford tells the Weekly. "Likewise Cuckoo's Nest."

Charles Bowden, author of Inferno and A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior, has said: "Sometimes a Great Notion is one of the few essential books written by an American in the last half of the century. Anyone trying to get a handle on our times had better read Kesey. And unless we get lucky and things change, they're going to have to read him a century from now, too."

More troubling on a personal level, for those who knew and loved Kesey, is Christensen's portrait of him as an irresponsible narcissist, a medicine-show huckster proffering a fraudulent path to enlightenment, and a mean-spirited bully to anyone who dared to challenge him.

Jeff Forester, a member of a writing class Kesey taught at the University of Oregon in 1987, offers a different portrait of the man. Kesey and his 12 graduate students collaborated on a novel, Caverns, which was published by Penguin Books in 1990. Each student was tasked with writing specific passages of the manuscript under Kesey's supervision.

"He was so generous with his time," Forester recalls. "I was working nights and writing from 2 to 6 in the morning, after I got off work from the restaurant. There was a key on the porch of Ken's house and we were told to come in to work on the book whenever we wanted to. I would come in at 2 and start working, and Ken would get up and come downstairs and sit there with me, and teach me.

"There were 12 students in the class and he did that with all of us," Forester continues. "I don't know when the guy slept. The idea that Ken Kesey was self-centered is ludicrous. He was intense. Like all of us, he could get grumpy and controlling at times, but that wasn't his default setting. And Ken spent less time in that place than most people."

Christensen never answers the central question he poses in his book: Why did Kesey throw away his literary career and instead immerse himself in avant-garde endeavors, such as the creation of the first psychedelic school bus, "Furthur,"which he and the Merry Prankster slathered with DayGlo mandalas and drove across the country to ignite the grassfire of the '60s counterculture; and the free-form participatory performance art spectacles of the LSD-drenched Acid Tests? But if you spent any time with the man, it wasn't hard to stumble upon the answer.

I first visited Kesey's Oregon farm in August 1987, 20 years after the Summer of Love. I showed up as a rabid fan of his novels — Notion in particular — eager to learn everything I could from this phenomenal writer. For all Kesey knew, I could have been another Mark David Chapman. But he invited me to share a sumptuous dinner with his family and friends. Late that first night, after the other guests had departed and his wife, Faye, had gone off to bed, I found myself alone with Ken in the cathedral-esque barn he and Faye had converted into a home.

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