Novelist and countercultural folk hero Ken Kesey died last Saturday, November 10, at the age of 66, from liver cancer. A couple of weeks earlier, surgeons had cut out 40 percent of his liver, but the remaining scarred-up hunk-o-meat wasnt in such good shape either. Kesey and I were friends for 35 years, during which time we occasionally talked about his books. I learned, for instance, that Randle Patrick McMurphys initials in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest stood for revolutions per minute. And that Sometimes a Great Notion was inadvertently inspired by the feminist movement. Womens Lib has made us aware of our debauching of Mother Earth, Kesey told me. The man who can peel off the Kentucky topsoil, gouge the land empty to get his money nuts off, then split for other conquests, leaving the ravished land behind to raise his bastards on welfare and fortitude, is different from Hugh Hefner only in that he drives his cock on diesel fuel.
In 1989, when Kesey completed a collaborative writing project with a group of his University of Oregon students, he left them with some carefully chosen words to fire up their intensity. Whats the job of the writer in contemporary America? he asked. Im not sure, but heres an example. Youre going to be walking along on the street one of these days, and suddenly theres going to be a light over there. Youre going to look across the street, and on the corner over there, God is going to be standing right there, and youre going to know its God because hes going to have huge curly hair that sticks up through his halo like Jesus, and hes got little slitty eyes like Buddha, and hes got a lot of swords in his belt like Mohammad.
And hes saying, Come to me. Come across the street to me. Oh, come to me. I will have muses say in your ear you will be the greatest writer ever. You will be better than Shakespeare. Come to me. They will have melon breasts and little blackberry nipples. Come to me. All you have to do is sing my praises.
Your job is to say, Fuck you, God! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Because nobody else is going to say it. Our politicians arent going to say it. Nobody but the writer is going to say it. Theres time in history when its time to praise God, but now is not the time. Now is the time for us to say, Fuck you! I dont care who your daddy was. Fuck you! And get back to our job of writing.
It was infinitely more audacious advice than Kesey gave me when I recently started a novel. He simply said, What do the characters want?
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Paul Krassners latest collection, Murder at the Conspiracy Convention, will be published by Barricade Books next spring.