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Ken Kesey Kisses No Ass
By Chip Brown
What is it that makes him look like Santa Claus in the off-season?
A little lorn and north-weathered, as if he were an old magician who
couldn’t find the scarf in his sleeve anymore and lately had
been thinking the measure of a man was not what he’d accomplished,
the illusions he’d staged, but rather in how he handled the
loss of magic – the disillusion and decay of age. Magician is
how Ken Kesey had always thought of himself. Magic was how he described
the writer’s art. He launched his classroom spiels by tossing
a coin, catching it, then showing the students the empty hand. That
bit of misdirection was what writers did, he’d say; a good story
was a well-palmed egg, and every name in the pantheon had a signature
When Kesey was at Stanford, apprenticed to Malcolm Cowley in a
bumper-crop class that included the young Robert Stone and Larry
McMurtry, he developed the Kesey Trick. He was an exuberant storyteller.
You didn’t have to read his books to get a sense of his talent;
just ask a question, the answers came back in wide gyres of narrative.
He wrote like he talked, antic, broad, big-breathed, the word flowing
in a slangy, spermy, belt-of-bourbon surge, intimate and muscular,
the rigors of the college wrestling mat somehow shaping his way
of engaging the world in prose – you got a sense of a writer
grappling with his subjects, pinning the story, the paranoia in
his vision offset by the relish for the stage. Even now at parties
he still loves to flash the tricks he’d wired back in junior
high, levitating Q-Tips on playing cards, unearthing coins from
kids’ ears. He was still the showman who wanted to be an actor
before he picked up a pen, the writer whose first insights were
gleaned from Stanislavsky. What does the character want?
Writer as magician: The students nodded – Kesey was all the
proof they needed. He waved his wand, and abracadabra! Fame! Money!
Myth! His first two books had turned into movies. He’d been
talking to young people for decades, he could relate, he crackled
with the charisma of rebellion and good times even now, a Sixties
anachronism taking pills for high blood pressure, a goofy grandfather
with Day-Glo luggage and a balding, white Saint Nick’s fringe
above his ears, more than a little nostalgic for the days when the
message of the zeitgeist vis-à-vis drugs was Just Say Thanks.
You didn’t have to know much about the Sixties to see the
decade in his eyes, merry milk blue eyes filled with the auroras
of acid and the Pied-Pipered lanterns of the old mystery tour itself.
Was it unfair to wonder now, in these very different times when
the crack house and the AIDS ward are the reigning metaphors of
communal dissipation, where the magic had gone? Unfair to ask what
it had amounted to? Many people in literary circles considered Kesey
a magician only in the sense that he’d pulled off one of the
great vanishing acts of American literature. No fanatical eremite
like Salinger or Pynchon, but a conspicuous absence – a prominent
missing person. He had taken himself out of the game after Sometimes
a Great Notion in 1964 – done with novel writing. He said,
because he wanted to live his novels and make his life his main
imaginative act. Partly it was the curse of interesting times, the
drudgery of the study unable to compete with the theater in the
streets, but Kesey also had to contend with the hex of fame, the
crosshairs in the spotlight. Sales of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s
Nest would eventually top eight million copies, but it was Tom Wolfe’s
history of the Merry Pranksters that turned Kesey the literary phenomenon
into Kesey the cultural legend – the man who threw a party
and had half the country show up. Earnest commentators would one
day spin theories that Kesey’s 1964 trip across America in
an old school bus with a jazzy paint job was the cultural segue
between the Beats and the hippies. Is it any surprise things went
sour? There was the headline marijuana bust in 1967. Kesey tried
to throw the law off his tail with a faked suicide, then escaped
to a high-profile exile in Mexico. Eventually he returned to face
the judge who called him a tarnished Galahad and sentenced him to
six months in jail. He served his time and went home to a farm in
the wet hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley to raise his family,
shear sheep, and fog the spiders in the barn.
And writing? “After two successful novels and ten-times-two
successful fantasies,” he wrote in his journal, “I find
myself wondering what to prove next. I’ve shown the buggers
I can write, then shown them I can repeat, and better the first
showing. Now what do I prove? The answer seems to be ‘prove
nothing.’ A clever challenge, chaps, and one I confess stirs
the fight in me. Now anyone can crank out a nice compact commercial,
slide it between covers, and vend it as literature, but how many
are there capable of advancing absolute proof of nothing?”
“How Zen,” they might have sighted back in New York.
Kesey wrote mostly for himself. He published a pixilated scrapbook
called Kesey’s Garage Sale in 1973; fifteen years later, another
odd, grab-bag miscellany called Demon Box. A script in 1990 put
the Pranksters and Neal Cassady on trial. His two children’s
books were charming but did little to shut up the literary gatekeepers,
who dismissed him as a failed writer, a once promising casualty
of the Sixties. No wonder Kesey preferred to read to audiences of
kids – kids he could move, kids he could change.
Had the magician tricked himself? When Norman Mailer visited the
farm, the old walruses sank their tusks into the cautionary fate
of Hemingway and the problem of “the Hemingway Hump,”
which was what you faced when you didn’t have the stamina,
or the artistry, to pull rabbits out of the hat anymore. The subject
was much on Kesey’s mind. Despite his departure from the New
York publishing world, his determination to prove nothing, the dog
in him still wanted to go up against the bear. A big book had been
gestating, a novel from the whole cloth, not a loose confederation
of stuff salvaged from magazines. The effort was overwhelming. Writing
had become like juggling. He couldn’t keep as many balls in
the air now. “I’ll never write a book as good as Sometimes
a Great Notion for the same reason that Salazar will never win another
marathon,” he would say. Of course, if you believed that talent
was connected to physical prime, you were bound to trap yourself
in an artistic and spiritual cul-de-sac eventually. Age deepens
the art of some writers – think of Yeats, Tolstoy, any number
of women immune to machismo is the first place. Kesey’s whistling-by-the-graveyard
bluster about proving nothing, and the few books he’d written,
bespoke a writer estranged from his imagination – a writer
compulsively combing his autobiography for a way to get beyond it.
It was as if he had lost touch with the the art of disappearing
into characters. It was as if he were haunted by his own persona,
or gonzo, as he called it. How much more difficult to reinvent yourself
when you can’t shuck your legend.
What does the character want? Indeed, what did he really need if
not another kind of trick, this one to play not on readers but on
himself that he might reanimate the muse? His family had come to
Oregon by way of Texas and Colorado, a restless clan tending west
in search of fresh starts. Could landscape revive the conjuring
spirit? A question for a chain of Keseys. He knew already what he
hoped, for he had turned his eyes north to the book of spells in
that half-real, half-fanciful country: Alaska.
Ken Kesey rolled on in his tractor, minus the load of hay his cows
were now munching in a wet, emerald field. A dozen peacocks sashayed
about like runway models. Actually, they were more interesting than
runway models; they made you think how much more interesting runway
models would be if they paused now and then to emit piercing screams.
Kesey shut off the machine and clambered down, consciousness incarnate
at fifty-six. On this rainy April morning, his ex-wrestler’s
amble was a little stiff. We shook hands under the blooming lavender
tangle of a wisteria vine that groped like one of Faulkner’s
enormous sentences across the front of Kesey’s barn toward
the five-pointed star on the hayloft door.
“Where’d you park?” said Kesey, hauling on red
sweats. He had powerful forearms and fingers so thick his wife was
often stuck with the chore of sewing the beads and tinklers onto
his stage costumes.
“Out by the mailbox.”
“That’s where the cops park,” he said.
He invited me inside anyway. Faye, Kesey’s wife of thirty-six
years, had gone into town to teach a Bible-studies class, but there
was plenty of life in the house: two chicken hatchlings fussing
under a sunlamp, a noisy green parrot, an all-but-bedridden springer
spaniel named Merry, and Kesey’s favorite dog, Joe, the product
of “an unspeakable congress between a Lab and an Alsatian.”
I think I saw a cat tooand lots of spiders wobbling out of the barn,
where some aerosol arachnicide was rapidly degrading their quality
of life. Joe barked and jumped on a one-hundred pound ball of hemp
twine to turn a few tricks.
“The U.S. Constitution is printed on hemp,” said Kesey.
In an age of politicians who tried pot but didn’t inhale,
Kesey’s libertarian notions about what people should be allowed
to put in their bodies are bracingly unhedged. In his view, marijuana
and LSD should be legal – they’re not the sorts of drugs
that make people knock over 7-Eleven stores. The house reflected
his psychedelic bias. The living-room floor was painted in electric
hues, dozens of shiny Mylar strips dangled from the ceiling, and
the office stairs looked as if they’d soaked up a vat of rainbow
sherbet. “I love color,” he said. Even nature seemed
eager to strut its phantasmagorical side, sending hummingbirds to
the feeder and wood ducks to the pond, birds so prismatic they looked
to have frolicked on the office stairs when the paint was still
Kesey had the ducks in his binoculars when the phone rang. “Yeah,”
he said gruffly. “Uh-huh.” He fell into a conversation
with what sounded like an old friend. I poked around the loft-like
space, which was comfortably furnished with old couches, shelves
of books, an out-of-tune piano. In the bathroom were a copy of Rilke’s
“Ninth Elegy” and a photograph of Kesey’s son
Jed. “You know if you talk to long your brain goes off to
one side of your head,” Kesey said into the phone and hung
“That was John Space from the University of Space,”
he sighed. He opened the refrigerator and swigged from a bottle
of milk. “He thinks I’m on the faculty.” Kesey
gets a lot of calls from deans at the U of S. He lists his number
on the theory that people will get it anyway and that it only piques
the interest of the really dangerous nuts when you try to hide.
After we got talking about his friend Hunter Thompson, Kesey took
me upstairs to his office to find some faxes recently arrived from
the father of gonzo journalism. When he isn’t holed up at
Koasthaus, his retreat on the Oregon coast, Kesey writes at night
in the warm, pine-paneled room, often going till dawn and sleeping
on a pallet by the computer so as not to disturb Faye. On good day,s
he doesn’t get up until noon.
“Here they are,” Kesey said, brandishing the faxes.
Kesey, do you have any acid? I can’t stand the hunger any
longer! I’m desperate, Kesey! I need LSD-25! Kesey, where’s
the acid? I need it immediately!
Kesey faxed his reply, drawing what looked like a grid sheet of
blotter acid: placebo tabs for immediate relief. “They might
have worked on Hunter,” he said. Gin and tonics and good Mexican
grass are Kesey’s main mood-shifters now, but he still trips
occasionally, and every Easter he goes up Mt. Pisgah to drop a tab
of LSD. On top there is a memorial for his son Jed, killed in a
car crash in January 1984. Thirty years ago, on acid, Kesey had
seen the future, his whole life in a deck of cards. One of the cards
foretold the death of a son. Or seemed to at the time – the
cards riffled by so fast he wasn’t sure what he had seen,
or didn’t want to believe what he knew. “you can cheat
fate, but you can’t cheat destiny,” he said. He’d
thought he’d trumped the death card when he pulled Jed out
of an earlier car wreck as a young boy and breathed the life back
into his son’s limp body, mouth to mouth.
But no. And when the card was played, and the University of Oregon
wrestling van skidded off an icy road en route to a meet, Kesey’s
hair turned gray almost overnight. He built his son’s coffin
and buried the boy in the yard out back. We walked out to the grave,
a gray headstone with candles. In the early stages of grief, Kesey
found himself holding long conversations with Jed’s ghost.
The news went all over the country, and he received thousands of
letters. Angry at the NCAA for allowing the University of Oregon
wrestling team to travel in a van without seat belts, a van that
had formerly been used to transport chickens to the slaughterhouse,
he filed a lawsuit. It was eventually settled out of court, and
Kesey used the money to buy the university athletic department a
Metaphysics is a quick trip if you catch the right bus. It was
3:45 in the afternoon, and as “Hit the Road Jack” came
booming over the sound system donated by the Grateful Dead, Further
II edged down the Kesey driveway. There had been some idle talk
about going up a mountain, or maybe dropping by Gateway Mall to
freak out the consumers, but we were loose on an existential furlough,
we had no agenda, no goal, nothing to prove: Argal, we would prove
nothing! Out came the sun, as if to reward good Zen thinking.
“I told you the sun would come out,” said Zane. Kesey’s
oldest son runs Key-Z productions and does a fair mail-order business
in his father’s books, videos, and T-shirts. He was riding
shotgun on the roof, communicating with his dad over a headset mike.
Speakers allowed the rest of us to audit all miked conversations
and listen to music.
“Keep talking Zane,” said his father.
“Slow, slow, slow,” said Zane as the bus raked under
some low-hanging limbs. Those of us on the roof scrunched down.
“I’m gonna bring down these effects,” said Ken
Kesey never has a hard time scaring up a crowd. He had rounded
up some of the usual suspects – the Married Pranksters, as
Zane called the younger generation, and some of the fossilizing
originals: Mike Hagen, now a real-estate developer, and Babbs, a
neighbor, collaborator, and one of Kesey’s best friends.
He’d corralled a bunch from Nike’s as agency too. Kesey
was hoping to persuade Nike to sponsor him in a series of readings/performances
at children’s hospitals, and he alos wanted to campaign for
a Further Sneaker, which would be a package of white sneakers and
psychedelic coloring pens to trick them up with.
So we were about thirty in all, and we went west, honking and waving,
“Let the Good Times Roll” rolling from the speakers.
Wet, raw Oregon looked like Ireland withouth stone walls, Ireland
minus history, wild and blank as if the land, like the trip, was
a plain sneaker waiting to be colored in. The half-dozen of us on
the roof in harlequin jumpsuits squinted into the wind. The sun
vanished behind rain clouds.
Kit Kesey sat in Neal Cassady’s position at the wheel, leaving
his uncle and Babbs to handle the rap. Kesey programmed the soundtrack
and kept a lookout for traffic.
“Whoa, watch this guy, he can’t see us,” he said
as the bus eased by an oblivious pedestrian. “We’ve
made it into nothingness.”
That would be a trick, since the 1949 International Harvester has
a psychedelic wood-duck paint job and a horn that sounds like a
throttled goose. It is a much glossier version of the original Prankster
bus, which is now moldering in a swampy woods behind Kesey’s
house, “hidden” from the Smithsonian curators who, the
story goes, want it for their museum; Kesey won’t donate it
unless they agree to leave it as it is now, unrenovated, leaf-littered,
rust-eaten, with a cardboard skeleton sprawled behind the wheel
in Neal Cassady’s seat.
“Yellow Submarine” surfaced on the sound system. Kesey
and Babbs coaxed little Elizabeth Babbs into the chorus. We all
live in a yellow submarine, a yellow… “Just a short
stretch on Highway 58,” Kesey said as we headed up the Willamette
“Nothing to the left of us, nothing to the right,”
Rain began to slant down. We skirted the Dexter Reservoir.
A young would-be Cassady named John Swan warmed up his rap. He
was saying thing like “At this juncture in the space-time
continuum…” that made him sound as if he’d sat
too long on Kesey’s one-hundred-pound ball of hemp twine.
Kesey is of the decided opinion that Neal Cassady “could eat
three Robin Williams for lunch with a glass of sauterne.”
Swan had gotten Cassady’s form but not the content, to judge
from a few passengers who looked as if they were harboring the uncharitable
urge to ask him to zip it.
We pulled into the headquarters of Green Tortoise, a hippie bus
line that hauls people to Grateful Dead concerts. What was happening
at Green Tortoise? Nothing. Had they all seen this load of aimless
goofballs before? We pulled out unceremoniously, reveling in our
humiliation. One of the things the Chief said about being a warrior
in America was that you had to learn to grovel… He punched
up “Truckin’,” and the speakers began to pound
out one of Kesey’s dear-heart themes: Sometimes the light’s
all shining on me/Other times I can barely see…
“We’ve been recruited back into this age…”
Swan was droning. Babbs interrupted: “Did you hear about the
Indian who drank forty-three cups of tea and drowned in his tepee?”
We went on through Lowell, a somber little town of stony faces
where kids did not wave back. We hied by orchards. Back roads. Heard
more Proustian installments of Swan’s rap. The drizzle changed
keys and began to rain, then changed back and hung fog on the hills.
The Chief punched up “Witchi Tai Tai,” and everyone
sang along with the old peyote chant. Water spirit spirit running
round my head, makes me feel glad that I’m not dead…
And I think it was around then, if not before, that some of us
felt the shift in the energy field. I know I did, suddenly happy,
buoyed by the trippy blitz of silky air and sights and smells and
by this sense of collaborating with the forces behind the pageant
of the world. Earthbound improvisations aside, being on the bus
to nowhere, proving nothing, was like the release into speed and
space after a climb up a long western road-cut. It was like seeing
the skyline of a city at night or a range of mountains in flash
of lightning, and the exhilaration it generated was the kind that
was capable of clarifying whatever it was that you were in the midst
of – of releasing all the tension of following forms and observing
conventions. How did Kesey put it when we got back? “You try
that for three or four days and you don’t need no drugs,”
he said. “Ride the bus long enough and the old dog begins
to hallucinate.” Exactly, and were the old dogs younger, were
the times different, were we after great visions, we might have
trucked on for three or four days. We might have even talked about
trucking on for three or four days. At the very least we would have
motored over to Gateway Mall, where there were consumers whose cages
begged to be rattled. A whole new generation had come up, and it
was in dire need of unsettling lest everyone end up in Lowell. But
there were a lot of reasons to call it a day too, not least of which
was the big potluck supper waiting back at Kesey’s place –
fresh salmon, tequila, plenty of limes. Much better than living
on reds and vitamin C. We eased into the driveway just after 5:00.
Kesey had once lain under a table with a tape recorder and mused
on the schism between the consciousness of the West Coast and the
consciousness of the East. The sing and design mind divide. You
could see a West Coast sensibility in writers like Thompson, Tom
Robbins, Pynchon – an aesthetic shaped by acid. But their
concerns, their energy, their values, their love of broad strokes,
song and dance, puns – “the onus is on us!” –
were often dismissed by New York publishing and academic circles.
“What’s important to people on the East Coast isn’t
as important to people on the West,” Kesey said. “I
want to see strange stuff come out of the water and rear around.
Something that’s new and funny. So many books are about nothing
but the angst of what was done to you in childhood – I’m
not interested in that stuff. A lot of what I see being published
hasn’t been written to me. It’s caromed off New York
Kesey fed the VCR a copy of a KFQD documentary about his life and
up came the face of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. The New York Times
book critic dismissed Kesey as “a once promising but minor
writer,” like Salinger. “Fanny and Zooey is promising?”
Kesey snorted. “That’s like saying Richard III is promising.”
Lehmann-Haupt embodied all the problems of the East Coast consciousness;
twenty years ago, LSD seemed to serve as an antibody to strain of
fatheadedness in the culture, but fatheadedness was vexingly resilient.
“When Mailer visited, he asked, ‘How come we haven’t
seen more of you?’ and I said, ‘oh, ‘cause I read
that Gordon Lish said I was washed up as a writer,’ and Mailer
said, ‘oh, he says that about everyone.’ But at a certain
point I knew who I was not writing to. A lot of writers are writing
to the Christopher Lehmann-Haupts. I had to think, Who am I really
He was writing for citizens of “the fourth world” –
that free-spirited territory inhabited by skateboarders and hitchhikers
and pharmacological Magellans. Citizenship depended only on being
attuned to the spontaneity of the moment. The fourth world was never
very far from the prank of consciousness itself – that magic
act embedded in the genes. Kesey didn’t envy young people
growing up in the thickets of electronic underbrush. When he was
young there was no Nintendo, just long summer afternoons to be filled
with fantasy, and it was as a kid, long before LSD gave him the
big picture in Technicolor and Sensurround, that he had glimpsed
the fourth world. He described the awakening in an interview with
Gordon Lish in 1963, when the noted editor was still a fan:
“When I was a little kid, there was a stream that came down
from the hill at our place and would have cut across our yard, but
years before, somebody went out there and covered this stream with
stone mortared the stone together so that it left a hump down through
th middle of this yard, as if it were left there by a seven-hundred-pound
mole. And when the stream dried up, my brother and I – he
was in the third grade and I was in the fifth – we went down
to the end of that tunnel and walked through it, lighting our way
with torches. We found an old accordion under there. It was a great
find, and we brought it home and tried to play it. But it wouldn’t
play, and we found we could get into it by opening and opening this
screw and lifting the top off. We got in to all the valves and bellows
and everything, and there, stuck in a corner, we found a piece of
paper, a sign, and it said WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU LOOKING IN HERE
FOR, DAISY MAE? Well, I achieved some kind of satori right there
– knowing that somebody had sometime a very long while ago
gone in there and put that sign in that accordion, and he’s
betting that someday somebody’s going to come along and find
it. A mystery for people to wonder about. Well, that’s what
I want for my books.”
One of the delectably grandiose purposes of the Pranksters’
cross-country bus trip in 1964 was to forestall the apocalypse.
Almost thirty years later, in Sailor Song, Kesy is just trying to
get a credible vision of it on paper.
Faye had returned and was fixing supper. The just-arrived galleys
of the novel were sitting on the round oak table off the kitchen.
He had started working on it ten years ago, and at times he despaired
of ever getting it done. “I’d hit it with electrodes,
and it would go uhh!” he said. The book was dedicated to Faye.
“Without Faye, I would have been swept overboard by notoriety
and weird, dope-fueled ideas and flower-child girls with beamy eyes
and bulbous breasts,” said Kesey. Faye absorbed this confession
with the deep-seated equanimity she seems to bring to much of the
chaos of the house. Though she shared the kayak in which Kesey ran
the Sixties, it’s hard to picture her in the whitewater –
a devout student of the Bible, a quiet, steadfast presence. They
met putting up decorations for a seventh-grade operetta, eloped
their first year in college, and withstood the strains of an open
marriage: Kesey has a daughter by Mountain Girl, who is now married
to Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist of the Dead and one of Kesey’s
Sailor Song is a story about a love affair at the end of the world.
It’s set in the future. The town Kuinak, Alaska, has been
overrun by filmmakers shooting a movie of a children’s book
called the Sea Lion – the text of which Kesey published last
year. “When people read the Sea Lion chapter, they’ll
say, ‘Well, he can still write straight prose, so he must
know what he’s doing. There must be something to all this.’
“This is a book about love and the kind of despair I see
in people,” Kesey went on. “Why love, if it’s
such a painful thing to begin with? Why bother with it? I wanted
to bring two characters together who don’t have anything in
common. I’ve never written a love story. I see it almost like
a comic book – really broad lines sometimes show more truth
than really finely nuanced lines. I think of readers more and more
as viewers. If I were thirty years old, I would have written this
book with a video camera, and it would exist only on tape. You have
to deal with the audience where it is, not where it ought to be.
I’m writing for the MTV audience – you have to have
quick cuts, brightly colored shots to hold them.”
Faye set some asparagus on Kesey’s plate. Kesey’s father
had always talked about Alaska. “It was Ben in Death of Salesman
who said, ‘You gotta go where the diamonds are.’ ”
He saw the progress of his family from the Midwest to Oregon echoed
in his fiction, Cuckoo’s Nest reaching Oregon, Sometimes a
Great Nation making the last leg to the ocean.
“I think people turned right and headed to Alaska –
to go beyond the periphery of culture and society,” he said.
“The business of getting into drugs is a continuation of my
father’s western movement. Today the air is worse, the water
is worse, we don’t score as high on tests, more people are
in prison than in any time in history, the war on drugs is a war
on poor people trying to get high, the Gulf war is another episode
of Cheers, and nobody is firing true bullets into the heart of villainy.
Only space is left to us – the American character is the one
who’ll go after that spiritual space even if he has to break
the drug laws to do it.”
It was the filmmaker Caroll Ballard who brought Kesey to what passes
for America’s last frontier. Ballard was shooting Never Cry
Wolf around Skagway in 1982 and wanted Kesey to write an ending.
“ I couldn’t believe how wired Skagway was,” he
said. “It wasn’t chemical, it was legal. Alaska brings
something out of you. It makes women look beautiful, not just the
Cosmo cover girls but big old forty-five year-old overweight women.
Something about the harshness of the country – the torn, ripped
quality of the little towns – accentuates the softness of
women. The land is always daring you: Come on, give me your best
shot. I started taking notes and thinking about it.”
He made a trip the next year to Dillingham with Jed, their last
There wasn’t an ounce of sexual tension on the streets of
Eugene, or in Oregon for that matter; the women all seemed like
potters or weavers, centered spiritual, appalled by the idea of
eye shadow. And the men in their jeans and lumberjack woolens were
all sensitive, politically correct sorts, too, untainted by vanity
as they peered up through their beards like pale freshwater fish
in saw grass.
But Los Angeles at this moment was fizzing with sex – 75
libidinal degrees, bright sun wrenching in the succulents. Kesey
fixed himself a bourbon in the back of the white stretch limo sent
by NBC and looked out at the pastel bungalows. He tried for two
summers to break into acting. To make money, he wrote stories for
a Tijuana publisher about the venereal adventures of one Dan Iron.
I’ve never left L.A. with more than I came with,” Kesey
sighed reflectively. When we arrived at the NBC studios, a young
woman in cowboy boots and a tight white cotton dress with a hem
of fringe was bantering with some guy on the steps. Her legs were
bare, her hip was cocked, the fringe of her dress swayed when she
shook her long, dark hair.
“Did you see that fringe?” Kesey said as we went in.
But there was hardly time to focus because Vicki, the talent booker,
was wearing a leopard-skin blouse, and Michelle, the makeup woman,
was outfitted in un-Oregonian fashion, and on the monitor Bob Costas
was inclining toward Downtown Julie Brown, who was sutured into
a red dress…
“Men aren’t bird-dogging women the way they used to,”
Kesey said when we were safely kenneled in his dressing room. “Women
are noticing it. Women are starting to get restless.”
It seemed like wishful thinking to me, at that point. It seemed
like we had turned ourselves into a spectacle of bird-doggery. Kesey
unlatched his psychedelic suitcase and blocked his top hat; he set
his masks and his copy of the I Ching on the table. He consults
the oracle almost daily, throwing three coins that were machined
from a copper pipe by a couple of his cell mates from his days in
jail. Even in his tux, Kesey upheld the style of West Coast consciousness,
setting off the formal attire with tie-dye socks and shirt. He looked
ready to romance a wood-duck. Downtown Julie Brown tottered down
the hall in X-rated heels, looking for someone to help extricate
her from the red dress. On the brink of making a drastic change
in the focus of my profile, I consulted Kesey’s copy of the
I Ching: “Retreat is the correct way to behave in order not
to exhaust one’s forces.”
Kesey was up on the monitor himself now.
“You scored big not just commercially but critically while
still in your twenties,” Costas said, not shying from the
East Coast question. “Many people would say you peaked with
Sometimes a Great Nation. Do you feel they have a point?”
“Many people have to check USA Today to see whether they
had an orgasm,” Kesey shot back. “I have a large body
of work, but it hasn’t come through the media.”
Costas invited Kesey to read. Kesey opened a copy of Little Tricker
the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, a story he was proud to
say had been ranked with immortal tales like The Cat in the Hat.
He read for five minutes; he read for ten. He read for what in television
is the equivalent of an ice age. Costas had slipped offstage and
had tried giving Kesey wind-it-up signals, but Kesey was locked
and zoned, jumping from Little Tricker’s chattery treble to
Big Double’s basso profundo. Kesey swept his hat off, perspiration
gleaming on his scalp like Mylar.
“He’s got a Nixonian sweat going,” Costas whispered.
The director looked flummoxed.
“We’ll use a few minutes and run the credits over it,”
Costas said, reluctant to interrupt the spell Kesey’s story
had cast over the hard-boiled audience of television people sitting
on studio bleachers. The story worked like Julie Brown’s red
dress. People were enthralled, some even gasped at the end when
Kesey released a mechanical bird. The bird veered over the cameramen,
circled the cavernous studio, and crashed at the back of the set.
As we headed out, Michelle the makeup woman said, “Nice working
“You give good face,” said Kesey.
The limo driver took us back to the airport for a flight across
the L.A. basin to Claremont McKenna College. In the morning, Kesey
spoke to an English class, a sea of mostly white, respectful faces;
it was probably safe to assume most of them would never go into
a bookstore on acid, as Kesey once did, and sign all of Hitler’s
titles. Kesey made a coin disappear, explained his trick theory
of writing, and told the class, “Write what you don’t
know. What you know is almost dull. If you had a really interesting
life, you almost surely wouldn’t be writing.”
And toward the end of the class, Kesey launched into the story
of his writing a novel with students at the University of Oregon.
They decided to give a reading of the final product. A big event.
A packed house. TV stations were covering it, the performers decked
themselves out in nineteenth-century costumes. Midperformance, a
class member who was a devotee of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh inserted
a treacly valentine to his guru. Kesey and his students were outraged.
“It was worse than a priest peeing on the pope’s foot.
This guy’s love of his deity was more important than writing.”
“So,” said Kesey, his voice shifting, “you’re
walking down the street one day and you see God. He’s got
the blue eyes of Jesus and the White Beard of Moses and the sword
of Krishna and the bow and arrow of Diana, and he says to you, ‘Come
with me! Come with me!’ What do you do? Do you go with God?”
Kesey paused, the silent drama of the question built. All of a sudden
he pounded the table, startling some of the students, galvanizing
the class. “No!” he roared. “The job of the writer
is to say, ‘Fuck you, God! Fuck you and the Old Testament
you rode in on!’ You’re writers, your job is to kiss
Afterward he autographed copies of books, his own and others. Sometimes
he signed his name “Jerry Sinatra.”
That night, sitting around with margaritas and some Mexican marijuana,
we watched Cybill Shepherd run the paces with Jay Leno. The odor
of bougainvillea slithered through the screens. “She looks
like forty scoops of vanilla ice cream,” Kesey said, taking
another drag. “Larry McMurtry is still in love with her.”
Who could blame him – Cybill wiggled out in an itsy blue dress,
her flaxen goddesshood somehow humanized by the bad match of her
cream shoes. Was it the cannabinol content of Kesey’s stash,
or the lift of the tequila, or the psychotropic L.A. air? All I
know is that when Kesey said, “You know what the trouble with
Esquire is?” I found myself thinking maybe he hadn’t
forgiven me for parking where the cops park. Maybe the trouble with
Esquire in his view was they couldn’t get writers who could
concentrate on their author profiles with Downtown Julie Brown around.
As the subject had come up, I found myself roughing out a Top Ten
list of problems with Esquire: No free acid at Christmas parties.
Women We Love models won’t put out. Corporate dining room
off limits to free-lancers…
“Not enough tits,” said Kesey.
Aha! We brainstormed remedies. He said he’d write some of
those short, frothy paeans to fringe and décolletage you
always see in Vanity Fair – bird-dog caption prose for riffing
on actresses – an art form unto itself.
“Sort of like haikus,” I said.
The words looped through Kesey’s phase-shifted mind. “High
cooze,” he said, then laughed unreconstructed delight.
“Magic,” wrote E.M. Cioran, the great Romanian screwball,
“is useful for small and inessential things, but powerless
when confronted with metaphysical reality.” Well, maybe. Or
maybe not. His last night at Claremont, Kesey packed the house.
There was something poignant in his asking the crossed-arms crowd
of deans and professors and students to pretend they were all twelve
years old. But before long, those who didn’t look a little
hoodwinked were leaning forward, eager to hear more of the wily
squirrel that outwitted bears in Topple’s Bottom. A man well
into the second half of his life now, Kesey cares less about what
people believe than about what he might get them to do, and that
night – a night in which he received an unsentimental ovation
and was beset by admirers – he got them to wear the faces
of children. And then, amazingly, to sing: Sometimes the light’s
all shining on me/Other times I can barely see/Lately it occurs
to me/What a long strange trip it’s been.
His anthem. All together now.