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.
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.
“Say, I've got a movie you should see!” Kesey suddenly exclaimed. He rooted through a chaotic assemblage of videotapes and surfaced with a copy of The Horse's Mouth, a 1958 adaptation of a Joyce Cary novel. In it, Alec Guinness plays anarchist painter Gulley Jimson, once acclaimed by the critics, who fell out of favor when he radically altered his aesthetic approach to pursue a deeply personal vision.
As the movie begins he is a penniless has-been, dismissed by the mavens of high art as a mediocre talent who never lived up to his early promise. But he seems untroubled by this as he struggles with maniacal intensity to render the images burning inside his head. Jimson is a conniving con artist, a deadbeat and a scrounger, willing to manipulate and exploit anyone and everyone to realize his one overriding aspiration: to find a stretch of wall large enough to contain the mural he's sure will be his masterpiece.
“When we first saw this movie, we were amazed,” Kesey explained. By “we” he was referring to his classmates at Wallace Stegner's legendary Stanford writing program, including Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ed McClanahan and Wendell Berry. “We never realized people could live like that. I don't see anybody doing that these days — living only for art.”
Kesey wholeheartedly embraced the concept of the artist as outlaw, as an agitator who wages a one-man jihad against conformity. He refused to confine himself to the comfortable womb of literary life: tapping out books in a cozy little office, giving interviews to Sunday supplements and public broadcasting stations, elaborating on his recurring themes in literary quarterlies and university lecture halls. Instead, Kesey bounded into the public spotlight in the costumes of comic book superheroes and goaded American youth into abandoning the “I Like Ike” uniformity of the 1950s. He not only chronicled his times, but he also shaped them.
But he paid a terrible price. As the years passed, in the public's mind, the outlandish costumes became the man. Kesey's identity blurred with that of Wavy Gravy, the official clown of Woodstock. As the bloom of the counterculture wilted, and the malaise of the '70s gave way to the culture wars that prevail to this day, the literary establishment dismissed Kesey as a flash in the pan who would never amount to more than a footnote in literary history.
Mark Christensen is only too happy to reinforce these stereotypes, concluding: “Kesey parlayed an unholy trinity of language, drugs and hunger for an anti-authoritarian god to a briefly glorious Yellow Brick Road to nowhere.”
Kesey's feelings about the choices he made were complicated. In many interviews he remained defiant, claiming his psychedelic school bus was his greatest creation. At other times he admitted he might have squandered his literary talents. He was keenly aware of his shortcomings: He drank too much booze, smoked too much dope and surrounded himself with enablers who were only too happy to provide him with diversions from writing.
In Demon Box (1986), he delivered a brutally honest account of his own failures. It's the most searing act of self-examination by an American writer since F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up. Yet throughout the book, stubborn optimism fights a pitched battle with despair: “[M]aybe it was time to talk a little of that old sky pie once more, for all the danger of dead ends or cross hairs.”
And this is what struck me about Ken right up the very last time I saw him at a reading on his 60th birthday: his resilient idealism. “We're fighting a battle to save the world, whether it wants to be saved or not,” he exhorted an audience at the L.A. Central Public Library. “We've got to stand up and holler, 'Christ, yes, we're liberals!' It takes a whole lot more brains and it takes a whole lot more common guts to be liberal. We've got to get off each other's cases and begin to reach out there and strengthen the other person.”
In his 1964 review of Notion, Granville Hicks observed: “Many novelists have experimented with the rapid shifting of point of view, and some have tried to blend past and present. … But I can think of no one who has made such continuous use of these two methods as Kesey. And he has made them serve his purpose: That is, he has succeeded in suggesting the complexity of life and the absence of any absolute truth.”
It will take a biographer with a similar grasp of the complexity of life to illuminate the Chinese box of contradictions that was Ken Kesey. Those of us who loved the man and his work can only hope Robert Faggen and the others who come after him will be up to the challenge.
David Weddle is author of If They Move… Kill 'Em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah. He was a writer/supervising producer on Battlestar Galactica, and is currently a writer/co-executive producer on CSI.
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