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 wasn‘t 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 McMurphy’s initials in One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest stood for ”revolutions per minute.“ And that Sometimes a Great Notion was inadvertently inspired by the feminist movement. ”Women’s 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. ”What‘s the job of the writer in contemporary America?“ he asked. ”I’m not sure, but here‘s an example. You’re going to be walking along on the street one of these days, and suddenly there‘s going to be a light over there. You’re going to look across the street, and on the corner over there, God is going to be standing right there, and you‘re going to know it’s God because he‘s going to have huge curly hair that sticks up through his halo like Jesus, and he’s got little slitty eyes like Buddha, and he‘s got a lot of swords in his belt like Mohammad.
“And he’s 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 aren‘t going to say it. Nobody but the writer is going to say it. There’s time in history when it‘s time to praise God, but now is not the time. Now is the time for us to say, ’Fuck you! I don‘t 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?“
Paul Krassner‘s latest collection, Murder at the Conspiracy Convention, will be published by Barricade Books next spring.