The minute Ken Kesey walked into the Stegner Fellowship Class in Fiction, at Stanford in September of 1960, he made it plain that he meant to be the stud-duck—in today’s parlance, the alpha male. Wallace Stegner was away that year. Malcolm Cowley took the fellowship class for the fall semester; Frank O’Connor taught us in the spring. There were about a dozen of us assembled when Ken made his entrance, and he was hardly the only competitive person in the room. Like stoats in a henhouse, we were poised to rend and tear. Except for the lovely Joanna Ostrow, protected by her elegant Afghan—a dog, not a Mujahideen—we were all young males. Ken plopped himself down at the right hand of Mr. Cowley and got set to read what turned out to be the first chapters of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This was stud-duckery indeed, for at least two members of the class, Christopher Koch of Tasmania and Peter Beagle, youthful pride of Brooklyn, had already published books and might be thought to have a better claim to read. My own first novel was in press; Jim (James Baker) Hall and Gurney Norman from Kentucky, Dave Godfrey from Canada, and Robin Macdonald from Scotland—who was soon to marry the lovely Joanna—all had arrived with books or parts of books that would in time be published. Mr. Cowley, still an editorial force at Viking—he had helped reel in On the Road—was keeping a paternal eye on Peter Beagle, also a Viking author (as Kesey soon would be). We were primed, and we were anything but slackers: when I lost count in the Nineties the class had produced about sixty books.
So who was this lumberjack, a figure so Paul Bunyanesque that I would not have been surprised to see Babe, the Blue Ox, plod in behind him? When he took out his pages, casually assuming the first position, there was a momentary bristle of egos, powerful enough to cause Malcolm Cowley, seasoned literary warrior that he was, to turn off his hearing aid. I believe he kept it turned off the whole semester, a tactic that allowed him to indulge in comfortable fantasies about how nice and how well educated we were. (I think this because in an interview given years later about our by then famous class he said that I had read all of French literature and had written a thesis on the naughty poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester: in fact I was still struggling through Madame Bovary and have never written a word about Rochester.)
Ken cleared his throat, we bristled, and then relaxed and decided to be bemused, rather than annoyed. Why? Because Ken Kesey was a very winning man, and he won us. In Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, Mrs. Dempster, the minister’s wife, is caught in the bushes with a tramp; when her husband asked why she did it she said, “…He was very civil, ‘Masa. And he wanted it so badly.” As with Mrs. Dempster and the tramp, so with Ken’s determination to be the center of attention: he wanted it so badly; so we let him get away with it, and, with one tragic exception, he kept getting away with a good deal of it for the next forty-one years, until the day came when he couldn’t, when it stopped.
On the ground at Stanford in 1960, we blithely let Ken get away with murder, but then refused, perversely, to let Peter Beagle, who read second, get away with French, the language in which he had written large hunks of his second novel. We attacked this book so savagely that Peter, from then on, retired behind a copy of The New York Times, where he peacefully snoozed out the year. We soon repented of our brutality and attempted to make it up with Peter by finding him girls, a coals to Newcastle sort of thing, since he had already secured, on his own, more girls than the rest of us put together could locate. Every time I crossed the Camino Real, in Palo Alto or Menlo Park, there would be Peter, zipping along on his motor scooter, traveling from lady to lady. Thanks to his habit of feminizing the universe—which couldn’t have hurt him with the ladies—it was a while before we figured out that the Jenny he talked about constantly was his motor scooter, not another girlfriend.
Most of the fellowship class lived on the Peninsula, but Chris Koch and I preferred San Francisco; we drove down to Stanford twice a week in my jalopy. Chris was already deep into his obsession with South Asian politics, the fruit of which was The Year of Living Dangerously. After a class or two, Ken, the stud-duck, invited us to his duck pond, the famous Stanford Bohemia, Perry Lane, preferred residence of advanced spirits since the time of Thorstein Veblen. To me Perry Lane looked not unlike cheap graduate student housing anywhere; similar hotbeds of low-rent revolt could have been found in Iowa City, Ann Arbor, or New Haven. But Perry Lane meant much to those who lived there, so much that when it was bulldozed in 1963 to make way for pricier structures Faye Kesey, Ken’s quiet, shy wife, was so frenzied by the destruction of her habitat that she chopped up a piano with an axe. Despite this moment of wildness Faye was the unwobbling pivot and the unmeltable glue that kept a very complex domestic situation from spinning into fragments. She and Ken, country kids, married young; at the time of his death in November 2001 they had been married forty-five years. I don’t know a wife I respect more.
What was evident from my few visits to Perry Lane was that Ken already had a court; and he kept a court. Courtiers might leave, be chased off, die; but there would be replacements. The Merry Pranksters, once they evolved, functioned as a floating court. There were always a few good friends who were not of the court: Wendell Berry, Robert Stone, myself. To enjoy the strength of Ken’s friendship it was necessary to separate him, for a time, from the court, because if the court was sitting he would play to it, meddle with it, charm it, vex it.
The Stegner class soon mellowed, as we became friends. By the time Frank O’Connor took over there was no need to turn off hearing aids. If a dull or vapid piece got read in class we didn’t savage it, as we had Peter Beagle’s hopeful French. If there was savaging to be done, Mr. O’Connor did it. I was denounced for having read Smollett, a Scotch author evidently intolerable to Irishmen. Ken continued to read chapters of Cuckoo’s Nest as he wrote them. I liked it; it was clear that he had a powerful story going. I think most of the class felt the same way, though we weren’t quite 100 percent seduced. When the hero, Randle P. McMurphy, appears, Ken, the stud-duck, has McMurphy introduce himself to the loonies on the ward with a challenge. McMurphy speaking:
“This busy man Mr. Harding, is he the bull goose loony?” He looks at Billy with one eye and Billy nods his head up and down real fast; Billy’s tickled with all the attention he’s getting.
“Then you tell Bull Goose Loony Harding that R.P. McMurphy is waiting to see him and that this hospital ain’t big enough for the two of us. I’m accustomed to being top man. I been a bull goose catskinner for every gyppo logging operation in the Northwest and bull goose gambler all the way from Korea, was even bull goose pea weeder on that pea farm at Pendleton—so I figure if I’m bound to be a loony, then I’m bound to be a stompdown dadgum good one. Tell this Harding that he either meets me man to man or he’s a yaller skunk and better be outta town by sunset.”
In class, with him performing it, this works; on the page, without the author’s voice, it flattens a little. Ken’s reaching for an old vernacular, the frontier yarn, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. By giving a bravura reading I suspect Ken was trying to slide us past a big question, which is how probable is it that Randle P. McMurphy would be on that loony ward. Ken attempts to finesse this by having McMurphy’s eventually victorious enemy, Nurse Ratched, explain that he probably thinks the ward offers an easier life than the prison farm. Coming at a time when more and more of America’s young, in their struggle to defy authority, were cracking up, Cuckoo’s Nest was a fresh-sounding antiauthoritarian fable, a big advance over the Snake Pit model of mental-ward fiction. Little wonder that it was popular.
Somewhere at Stanford there were poets, under the stern tutelage of Yvor Winters, but I never met one. The Age of Criticism was in its twilight; Winters was one of its last resplendent figures. He must have kept the poets in sweatshops, training them to be fanatical metricists. I doubt that he wanted them rubbing shoulders with a bunch of wormy fiction writers.
Soon enough the year ended, and the Stegner class scattered to the four winds. Thirty years passed before I saw Chris Koch again, but we kept in touch. Cuckoo’s Nest was soon published, to much acclaim; I had only occasionally news of the Keseys. There seemed to be a cultural revolution cranking up, but few tremors of it had reached Rice, where I was teaching.
The tremors struck Houston on a fine spring morning in 1964, when Ken called and said they were on a bus and were coming to see me; little did I know that the breeze of the future was about to blow through my quiet street. A very few minutes later there it came, the bus whose motto was FURTHER, and whose occupants probably indulged in a bit of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll, as well as almost continuous movie-making and a great deal of rubber-necking as they sped across America. There were Pranksters sitting on top, waving at my startled neighbors with day-glo hands. Ken was playing a flute. Living legend Neal Cassady—who had inspired both On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s beautiful poem “The Green Automobile”—was at the wheel. My son James, aged two, was sitting in the yard in his diapers when the bus stopped and a naked lady ran out and grabbed him. It was Stark Naked (later shortened to Stark), who, being temporarily of a disordered mind, mistook him for her little girl. James, in diapers, had no objection to naked people, and the neighbors, most of them staid Republicans, took this event in stride: it was the Pranksters who were shocked.
To that point virtually every moment of the trip had been filmed, but there was Stark, wearing not a stitch, and the Pranksters were not camera-ready. I soon coaxed Stark inside, where she rapidly took seven showers. Neal Cassady came in, said not a word, went to sleep, and didn’t stir until the next day, when it was time to leave.
The Pranksters, at this stage only on the road a few days, were extremely appealing. They were young, they were beautiful, they were fresh, and they were friendly. My neighbors at once adopted them; soon cookies were being baked and doughnuts fetched. I was glad to see the Keseys but also nervous. Who knew what Stark would do when she finished taking showers? The Kens, Kesey and Babbs, parked a mysterious jar in my kitchen cabinet—I didn’t investigate but I suspect we’d all be just getting out of jail now if that jar had fallen into official hands.
I never got a solid count of Pranksters on that visit, but there were enough of them to cover most of the floor space in my small house. In the night, despite my vigilance, Stark slipped away, having no idea what city or state she was in. The police found her and at once popped her into what Carl, the Billy Bob Thornton character in Slingblade, calls the “nervous hospital.”
In the morning the Pranksters—who would soon be advising America to tear up their schedules and embrace spontaneity and disorder—remembered that they had a schedule: Ken’s book party for Sometimes a Great Notion was happening in New York in only a few days. They lingered long enough for Ken to teach James his first word—“ball”—before hurrying off, Cassady again at the wheel. (In the last decade or so, touring the Northwest with his band, James has seen more of our old friends the Keseys than I have.)
This smooth departure left me, my lawyer, and Stark’s lovelorn boyfriend to extract Stark from the nervous hospital. It didn’t help that all our first names were Larry, but, in time, we got her out. The boyfriend was screamed at and driven off. My lawyer advised me to get her on the next plane to San Francisco, which happened to be the red-eye. In the airport, with several hours to wait, I asked her if she was hungry and she said she might eat a grilled cheese sandwich. She ate $78 worth, a big meal for an airport restaurant in 1964. As she munched she slowly regained a measure of her sanity, enough of it that when her boyfriend straggled up, the picture of woe, she meekly took his hand and got on the plane.
Three years passed. I was in the process of giving James a fifth birthday party when the bus whose motto was FURTHER pulled up at my door again. I had given James a small log fort for his birthday; it was set up in the back yard. Soon birthday party guests and Prankster children, of which there seemed to be a good number, merged in a wild melee. The confusion was so great that when I took the party guests home I forgot a little boy; he was found, hours later, sitting quietly in the darkened fort.
In the morning I came down to find another little boy sitting on my kitchen counter, digging Cheerios out of a box and eating them by the fistful. For a moment I feared I had forgotten yet another party guest, but this little boy was young Jed Kesey, who offered me a Cheerio. The image of the little boy eating Cheerios out of his fist has stayed with me to this day. Jed Kesey was killed in a car wreck while on a winter trip with his wrestling team in 1984; that’s the tragic exception, of which more later.
In 1967 the Pranksters were still beautiful, but they were far from fresh. They looked mushed, crushed, smushed, as bedraggled as World War I aviators who had just managed to get their Sopwith Camels safely on the ground. The neighbors were deeply concerned; even more cookies were baked, even more doughnuts fetched. On this visit the neighbors were particularly taken with a small man named Hermit, who was said to live on honey and roadkill. His honey was certainly excellent, but the roadkill in that neighborhood must have seemed paltry, I’m afraid.
At this juncture the ideal of companionship seemed to be cracking under the strain of travel—and of Ken’s celebrity. Ken Babbs, a very able man, was, I believe, getting a little tired of always being second in command. Mutiny threatened. Out of steam physically, the Pranksters had begun to pin their hopes on the spirit. I remember having a hot argument with the Prankster nomenklatura about a weighty piece of metaphysical (in the bad sense) slush called The Urantia Book, the manuscript of which was said to have been deposited in a Chicago bank vault by an alien. I wasn’t buying the alien, or the book either.
The next time I saw the Keseys they were living in La Honda, high in the fogs above Stanford. Both Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels and Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test have given full accounts of the Keseys in La Honda, so I’ll be brief. I went there with Jane Burton, a Texan with impeccable Perry Lane credentials. Jane said we should take food, so we took a carful, which was immediately inhaled. Faye hurried out to warn me to keep a close eye on my car—people had begun to cannibalize any vehicle that moved in hopes of getting one of the several rusting hulks scattered around running again. Ken was in a work shack, editing the many thousands of feet of bus film. Mountain Girl (later, as Mrs. Jerry Garcia, the matriarch of the Grateful Dead) was much in evidence; though it might be more accurate to say that much of Mountain Girl was in evidence. She was scantily clad.
Then Ken became a fugitive; the Pranksters went to Mazatlán, from whence Ken sent me a journal which seems to have passed through several hands before reaching me. I believe Tom Wolfe saw it, and was soon working on his brilliant reconstruction of the whole strange Grail Quest on which the Pranksters and others were leading the Flower Children—a quest not without victims. At La Honda the happy dream of Pranksterism had turned to nightmare, and, still to come, were the Acid Tests—big dances or parties at which the Kool-Aid was sometimes laced with LSD and other provocative substances—in my staid opinion a thoroughly bad idea.
I saw little of the Keseys from the mid-Sixties to the late Seventies, though there was one nice visit in Houston, no bus, just Ken and Faye; a few years later Ken and I did an evening together at Northlake College, outside of Dallas, after which I took him to my home in Archer City for a visit. On April 10, 1979, Wichita Falls had been hit by a devastating tornado, which killed nearly fifty people and destroyed thousands of homes, my brother’s included. I took Ken over to the site; by then the debris had been scraped away, leaving thousands of bare foundations, with the naked plumbing sticking up. Even more startling were the naked trees, from which all vestiges of bark had been sucked. Ken said little at the time but the sight of the naked plumbing and the naked trees resulted, fifteen years later, in a kind of happening called “Twister,” on the theme of ecological doom, that the Kens and perhaps others had cooked up.
On the way up from Dallas Ken told me a story, which became, for me, emblematic of his new working methods. He had been visiting Hugh Romney, known as Wavy Gravy, at the Pig Farm in Los Angeles when, while taking a walk, he came face to face with an immense and angry boar. Ken reasoned that the boar recognized him as a meat-eater and was prepared to eliminate him at once. Ken quickly resolved to convert to vegetarianism; the boar intuited and accepted this somewhat opportunistic conversion and let him pass in peace.
When I was three some evil cousins threw me into our pig pen, where, stuck in the muck, I was for several minutes the cynosure of a number of unfriendly porcine eyes. I’ll believe a lot about pigs, but not that they can intuit incipient vegetarianism. I said nothing. Finally Ken giggled. I don’t think he expected me to believe that story; I don’t think he even wanted me to. He was just beginning to craft it, orally, and the more resistant the listener was, the more it suited his immediate purpose.
His ultimate purpose was harder to guess at. There began to be shamanistic elements in his stories, elements whose meaning might not be revealed for several years. When Ken talked, I listened. He might say ten nonsensical things in a row and then come out with a perception of genius. I’m sure he told and retold the story of his confrontation with Wavy Gravy’s pig; he probably somewhere convinced an audience that Wavy Gravy had once owned a very civilized pig who was a good judge of character. In fact the pig was no judge of character; Ken duped him. I don’t know how long his vow of vegetarianism was to stay in effect, but on this visit he tucked, without apparent guilt, into a couple of hefty steaks.
Ken had by this time moved his family to the farm near Pleasant Hill, Oregon, where they still live. There were soon to be more consequences of the broken vow, as the group entered what in Prankster mythos is called the time of Hamburger’s Revenge. Hamburger was the family bull, I guess; I prefer to think Hamburger may have been a steer because bulls are not really meant for the table; steers are tender, bulls are tough. But, tough or tender, Hamburger got eaten, after which there was disorder in the heavens, with Lear-like confusions and alarums.
I’ll try to give the common-sense version: Faye had had enough. Ken was a very famous man in an Age of Groupies. He reminded me at times of LBJ. Faye thus had a lot to contend with—Lady Bird Johnson, in a different context, had the same thing to contend with. Faye’s forbearance was great—but it wasn’t total; neither was Lady Bird’s.
Ken, ever boyish himself, refused to register the fact that women aged. In his mind’s eye I believe he saw all women as being about the same age: young, as Faye had been when they married. But more than twenty years had passed; it was the groupies, not Faye, who were evergreen. Ken didn’t see jealousy of any sort as a problem. How could it be a problem? So Faye finally detonated, and a just thunder was heard far across the land. Courtiers and groupies fled. The marriage went on.
There was, also, a major scare. Ken was in his hometown of Springfield, Oregon, on his way to see his brother, when he crossed a long-defunct railroad track. But the track had been reactivated and a train hit them. Ken, his daughter, Shannon, his son, Jed, and his dog, Pretzels, were in the car. Dog and daughter were not much hurt, but Jed appeared to be dead. Ken, through a combination of will, prayer, and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, coaxed Jed back from the Shadows. I don’t know the exact dates but I think his father’s refusal to give him up gained Jed about fifteen years. Then, in 1984, the Shadows pulled him in.
In the Eighties I saw the Keseys only sporadically, once or twice in Oregon, in New York, Washington, here and there. When Ken traveled with Faye he was calm and kindly; when he traveled without her he was the wild boy from the hills. He worked up a little folk story his grandmother had told him: “Little Trickster the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear.” He began to perform this story with orchestras, and on the radio, and at shindigs of all sorts. He got interested in Alaska and, in 1992, published his third novel, Sailor’s Song—a good novel, too.
The three novels, published over a thirty-year span, seem to me to be roughly of a piece, in quality. But the best writing, for my money, is in the second book, Sometimes a Great Notion. This:
Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range…come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Agua River…
The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, shearing, cutting… forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce—and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir—the actual river falls five hundred feet…and look: opens out upon the fields.
Metallic at first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along gums, foam clinging to the lips….
I quoted that at length to get to the metaphor, always the heart of Ken Kesey’s purest gift in prose or conversation. Sometimes a Great Notion, the story of the Stamper family, is as much a realistic novel of manners as The Forsyte Saga, and, for that very reason, always seemed to irritate Ken, although it is the book in which he does the most with his gift and his heritage. Those of us who insisted through his showman years on thinking of him as a writer were not wrong.
Certainly, though, he got more interested in performance. What Ken would have been happiest doing, it seems to me, would have been to run a traveling medicine show. I can see him trucking on, with a mule and a monkey, a wagon gaily painted, a juggler, a magician, perhaps a dancing girl, and himself as master of ceremonies, driving around America, adding a little vividness, a splash of color, to the lives of people in remote communities. The Pranksters at their best and bounciest were, in effect, a rolling medicine show.
I saw Ken for the last time in 1995. Sara Ossana, the daughter of my screenwriting partner, Diana Ossana, was in the Northwest wing looking at colleges. Diana and I tagged along, as well as Sara’s then boyfriend Matt. Finished in Portland, we dropped down to see the Keseys for a day. Ken immediately captured the kids. He took them into his editing room and let them watch a film of Twister, the ecological doom-story that he claimed was the result of seeing all that naked plumbing and those skinned trees in Wichita Falls. Sara and Matt were at first bemused. Why were these old guys dressed up like characters in The Wizard of Oz? Why were they singing “They Called the Wind Maria,” only with different words? But then Ken took them into a big shed and let them sit in the bus—that bus whose motto is FURTHER. He stayed with them a long time, telling them his adventures. The bus was hardly a thing of their generation. They didn’t know exactly why they were sitting in it, but, as he talked, it became, in the teen words of the time, an awesome experience, sitting with this winning man in his wild Picasso bus that had somehow, before their time, been a bright thread in the fabric of American life.
For most of the time we were there, Ken kept on rapping with the kids. Faye showed us Jed’s grave, which was not far behind the house. A llama was moping about, lending this lovely Oregon pastoral a bleak Andean look. I missed the dead boy, and I felt misgivings. Families must put their dead where they want them to be; but there is, still, an argument to be made for cemeteries and Rilke has made it immortally if complexly in the great poem “Requiem for a Friend,” which he wrote in response to the death of his friend the artist Paula Modershon-Becker, after childbirth in 1907. Excerpts can’t do this poem justice but a stanza or two can at least suggest some of the questions it raises about the distancing that must go on between the living and the dead:
I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputation. Only you
return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock
against something, so that the sound reveals
your presence. Oh don’t take from me what I
am slowly learning….
For this is wrong, if anything is wrong:
not to enlarge the freedom of a love
with all the inner freedom one can summon.
We need, in love, to practice only this:
letting each other go. For holding on
comes easily; we do not need to learn it.
For somewhere there is an ancient enmity
between our daily life and the great work.
Help me, in saying it, to understand it.
Do not return. If you can bear to, stay
dead with the dead. The dead have their own tasks….*
These are my memories of things that mostly happened long ago. I have not done a necrology but I think most of the Stegner Fellowship class of 1960 is creaking on, in Australia and Scotland, in Canada and Kentucky, in California and Texas. Sad it is—sad—that our lumberjack is gone; but so it is. In Oregon now father has been laid by son, the two of them gone FURTHER indeed, into that mystery that neither The Urantia Book nor any other can explain.
December 5, 2002