South of Yachats on the 101, high on a west-facing Oregon bluff, the Pacific reaches as one blue sheet spread evenly over the Earth, little frays of cotton white untangling against the shoreline below. If you look out to sea, all the way out, you can see the horizon line cut straight across everything, the Earth falling off into nothing . . . and you with it. Or better now the vanishing divide, the above inseparable from the below, and you alone there with nothing, feeling the most reassured kind of small.
Out in front of you, a rogue seagull rides an invisible current of air under the bright sun. Look now. Before long this window will close and the impenetrable wall of corporeal gray will return and prove for you that other kind of sameness. Unity itself is merely unity. But possibility, when you recognize it . . .
Imagine for a second, in the foreground, a house and all the impressions it conjures. The American myth of the West sounding loudly in the inner movie of your attention; whoever picked here for this house must have done so with a tragic sense of triumphalism. No farther to go, the limits of ambition staring placidly back, overwhelming the urge to continue. This house is the apotheosis of forces that began as winds in the way back of time before time, and yet it belies the meaning of tomorrow. There is no west of West. Everything is back from here . . . Except whatever force but chance . . . There’s north, south, there’s out, in . . . and so it’s possible to go on, possible that an expansive view from the edge of the continent is as much a point of departure as a point of arrival, a quiet pause in a long tale, just what it is, just enough.
Time overlaps itself. A breath breathed from a passing breeze is not the whole wind, neither is it just the last of what has passed and the first of what will come, but is more—let me see—more like a single point plucked on a single strand of a vast spider web of winds, setting the whole scene atingle.
—Sometimes a Great Notion
Early November is mid-autumn most places, but if you’re talking any time later than Halloween in western Oregon there’s a good chance you’re talking rain. November 10, 2001, was a cool and dry exception, but damn if it doesn’t feel gloomy in retrospect. That was the day Ken Kesey passed away at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene from complications following surgery to remove a liver tumor. Prior to cancer, he’d suffered a decade of diabetes and stroke, but even so his death came too soon in the Southern Willamette Valley. For years Kesey had lived on a farm in Pleasant Hill, ten miles outside Eugene, and was so central to the counter-cultural identity of the region that his absence seemed a narrative impossibility to the story the region told itself.
It was for his freak persona more than for his books that he was known—a persona that the public, and perhaps Kesey himself, saw as a kind of self-parody. Tie-dye, the Grateful Dead, peace signs, Birkenstocks . . . the clichés are easy. Mention Kesey’s name in Eugene to a co-worker, someone old enough to remember the sixties, and the response you’ll get—assuming you don’t wear a tie to work—is “Kesey was a God . . . a legend . . . a hero . . . a defiant, yarn-spinning, whiskey-guzzling, sonofabitch . . . the Real Deal. Those acid tests, Man!” Secondarily, you might hear “And Cuckoo’s Nest was such an important book in those days. Kesey was the first guy to really stick it to the authorities like that.” Kesey’s post-sixties life is less well known, even in Oregon, but just knowing he was out there gave reassurance to a certain kind of person.
After Kesey’s death, Eugene implemented Readin’ in the Rain, one of those everybody-reads-the-same-book programs, in his honor. The organizers—a consortium of community organizers, libraries, and booksellers—opted to forgo the better-known One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the more challenging, and better, Sometimes a Great Notion. In the south part of town, at Tsunami Books on Willamette Street, ambitious stacks of Notion dominated the book buyer’s attention—the blue and green cover, yellow stick-writing of the Penguin edition representing the proudest articulation we have of life on the soggy land of western Oregon. That many of these copies did not sell was, maybe, a sign of Kesey’s entrenchment in Oregon: either you already had a copy or you never would. And for the type of person who might buy a copy in a fit of nostalgic optimism, chances are you’d stall out at a hundred pages—so many words. . . .
I remember that Eugene season well. I had broken up with my long-term girlfriend and was feeling pretty low about everything. The house I lived in with some friends from school was a raggedy little one-story filled with empty cans of PBR and covered by a flat roof where we smoked weed out of a ten-foot bong someone had to light from ground level. I was, in retrospect, very lonely. The haze helped get me through days where getting through was the best that could be hoped for, but the thing that kept me feeling sane was a growing sense that there was something out there worth finding. Periodically, I got glimpses or tastes or some other visceral fleeting experience of this numinous reality: the philosophical and mystical texts I was reading instead of the books assigned in class—Siddhartha, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Be Here Now, and Godel, Escher, Bach; Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, Alan Watts, and Ken Wilber—the magical expansiveness of Dylan’s mid-sixties period; the yoga and meditation I was practicing; the romantic love that worked against my other instincts and insisted that the world did not need to be escaped; the drugs, mostly mushrooms, that were a worldly entrée into the otherwordly, a melding of thought and experience, time and space, self and other, dichotomy and unity. I was on a search.
Truth, as we know from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion—Kesey’s two masterpieces—isn’t innocent, doesn’t come at you palms showing. Early in Cuckoo’s Nest, the narrator, Bromden, tells us, “it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” In Sometimes a Great Notion, Lee, the younger of the rivalrous Stamper brothers, says, “there are some things that can’t be the truth even if they did happen.” The emphasis in each case is on truth as narrative experience. For the storyteller, a blending of fact and fiction is necessary to get at the elusive it of experience. In this context it’s not so hard to see in Kesey a man for whom a life might be indistinguishable from the stories about it—a man who might turn from his great talents as an author for something even more ambitious—who might turn his real life into a fictional production and call that art.
Everything I knew about Kesey at the time of his death I’d absorbed from the ether of Eugene. By the following summer I’d read Cuckoo’s Nest, and soon after that Tom Wolfe’s account of the Merry Pranksters’ New York voyage and La Honda days, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The Pranksters’ bus ride down to Esalen read like a page out of my own story. A couple years before, on a trip to California, I’d commandeered a buddy’s truck in Santa Clara, not too far east of La Honda, and made my own pilgrimage south along the coast on Highway 1 to Esalen. I had no appointment, though, and the sixties were long gone: it had been ages since Esalen was the kind of place where a spiritually curious person could just show up and join the party. This was a new millennium and a person needed money and a reservation for enlightenment. Having neither and knowing it, I blissed out on the road to Big Sur open to whatever was coming: the contrast of land to sea dramatic and precise—there is one, then there is the other, facing off like yin and yang—a clarity of mind compelled upon me by the stark environment.
I parked the truck in the Esalen lot and was promptly set upon by staffers trying to keep the riffraff at bay. No free love, these days, no drugs, no trouble. If only I could talk to Mike Murphy—he’d understand. But no way were they taking me to their leader. “I just want to check out the scene,” I said. “There’s a website for that,” they said, “and a registration process,” and pointed me back toward where I came from. I agreed to leave but turned instead down a dirt path hoping to find the hot springs or just anything to help me feel like I was getting somewhere. When security came, I was escorted off the premises and threatened with a trespassing charge.
Heading back up the coast, I wondered where I could find what I was looking for and if it even existed anymore. Meanwhile, Kesey was still alive up in Oregon, and of or about him I’d read nada.
Even so, Kesey’s presence in the cultural and spiritual air of Eugene was thick for everyone. Being in Kesey’s general proximity was one of my first moments of thinking The World of Events connected at some points with the world outside my window. A genuine Historical Figure lived where I lived when I lived. The hospital he died in was a few blocks down from campus, less than a mile from the flat-roofed drug den where my friends and I lived. I’d been in that hospital before and I’d be there again: CAT scan to measure severity of concussion behind me, steroids for allergy-induced asthma attack and attendant too-close call with asphyxiation ahead of me. I’d been there to pick up a friend who’d had alcohol poisoning; I’d sat with my girlfriend during an immune system scare. It was all so close to home.
The town’s reaction to Kesey’s death was immediate and profound, the mourning of a real and sincere kind. When I read Sunshine remembering in the Daily Emerald obituary that “He beat the drum of freedom, pretty much all the time . . . His message was to be as big as you have it in you to be,” I understood something about what Kesey represented. This was the kind of message, you have to understand, that I (and I was far from alone on this) was eager to hear.
Born full tilt into a river flowing—
choking, blinded by sight—into a torrent’s
no chart to tell me of the torrent’s going
no record of a passing here before.
–untitled poem from Kesey’s notebooks, Kesey
Here I am. Two-thousand-let’s-say-two. Must be. In a white wooden lawn chair, sun overhead warm enough to keep me outside but not warm enough for me to remove my shirt. Summer’s turned to fall, the whole world in front of me regardless. Almost literally. I sit in the lawn chair and stare out from my perch above the Pacific, an ocean’s ocean, blue over blue today, with the soft soothing hum of crashing waves beneath me. Crows caw from behind and if there are omens they are good omens, each wave humbly receding into the white-noise machine of eons.
The book in my hands is Zadie Smith’s Autograph Man. I flip to the title page and examine her autograph, wondering beatifically at the magic of things traversing worlds—passing from imagination into the substantial, from her hands to mine. The book falls closed, page held by one finger, while the other hands runs appreciatively over the ground, feeling the softness of the earth and hunting out the exact pain of a sticker prickle. I want to be a good reader, a scholar, to sit and reflect and absorb, to really understand. Why I suddenly want this, who can say? Romance of some variety, no doubt, and the notion that there’s a kind of life out there I need to get to. But it’s that impatience that’s the very challenge, the thing keeping me from being somewhere, the urge to be going somewhere else. A book’s a challenge and I go at it like I go at all challenges: with stores of fight and with something to prove. Needless to say, this isn’t always the best way to go at things, full bore. How I would like to participate in that magic. Make something that means something to someone, helps them through something, give them hope. (There’s always time at the beach to dream.) I’ll read more Kesey first, then I’ll write stories, and one day I’ll meet Zadie Smith and tell her thanks.
In Kesey’s University of Oregon seminar, he and his students collaborated on the novel Caverns, a pretty much unreadable carnival history thing. Lidia Yuknavitch, one of the novel’s co-authors, describes a sad, alcoholic Kesey, eyes like “swollen vodka marbles,” beat down by life and devastated by his son’s death. (Kesey’s son Jed was killed when the bus carrying the University of Oregon wrestling team slid off an icy road. The tires were bald. Kesey sued the state and used his settlement to buy new vans for the team. A memorial to Jed on Mt. Pisgah, which sits behind the Kesey farm in Pleasant Hill, features a raised-relief map of the surrounding valley. On the solstice, sunlight passes through holes at the base of the sculpture.) Yuknavitch’s Kesey is a drowning man, bloated and submerged under his own past. “I think our hope was that Ken Kesey would write another perfect book. That he still had one in him and that we could somehow get it out. But all he kept doing was drinking. No amount of our getting high with him or walking the beach with him or listening to his stories could resurrect the man within the man.” Even drowning, though, Kesey had it in him to be large. “In the winter of the year of Kesey we all went to his coast house near Yachats together. A run down old place with wood paneling, a crappy stand up shower, a table with some chairs, and no heat. But the front window looked out onto the ocean. And of course the rooms were filled with Kesey.” And not just the rooms of the house: the town, the university, and Oregon itself were full of Kesey. “Every Oregon writer has a Kesey story,” Yuknavitch says. The year of Kesey is hers. Here’s another one:
Here I am up above the water, book in hand, thoughts like clouds on this unseasonably clear day, Ken Kesey’s beach house behind me. A small place, sobriquet “Kea-Sea Koast House,” south by a few highway miles from Yachats, entrance hidden in a green thicket wall. It helps to have a guide, someone who’s been there before. My new girlfriend’s mother is friends with Kesey’s daughter, and here I am. Last night we made pasta and sat at the dining room table staring out at ocean black and made love in Kesey’s bed, warm and secure in the house with wine and candles. I imagine him sitting here in his older years, writing quietly, perhaps amused to remember a life well lived, or perhaps thinking that his life and experiments and vision and writing after Notion had been failures, that had he continued writing in the mid-sixties he might have been one of the greats. His name signified an era, a movement, a counter-culture. And in a sense, his name overshadowed the books that really did make him one of the greats in the first place. He’s been dead a year this week but long before his death he was a caricature to the world. Everyone has an anecdote. And now I do too.
Here I am reading Autograph Man at Ken Kesey’s beach house thinking about taking a writing class even though I can’t imagine being good at anything that happens in a classroom. (GPA at this time in free fall, approaching terminal velocity.) The world is too full of possibility right now to focus on a book and my girlfriend is out getting us coffee. There’s only one person to call: Steve, a cousin I grew up with 150 miles north of here, the guy who read White Teeth floating on a surfboard in the Caymans and at whose behest I read the book myself, the guy who left college to ride a bus around the country, hungry for experience and the wisdom of the road. A real-life Neal Cassady, if it must be said. He’s in Detroit now, working construction and writing screenplays. “Movies are the great American art form,” he told me once, eager as ever to hold a grand opinion. (Later, though, sticking to what he knows best, he’d move on from screenplays to fiction and travel writing.) I didn’t know if that was true or not, but it struck me as the kind of all-knowing claim I’d like to make myself. An attempt: Kesey—the great voice of Oregon. (A writing teacher might say a thesis needs to be somewhat contentious, a claim worth arguing about. But there it is: a young man strong as his words are true, making claims.) Let me tell you, Steve:
—Guess where I’m calling from.
—Kesey’s beach house. I’m in his backyard, looking at his view of the sea.
—I love it. What’s the view?
—Everything’s big right now. The sky is clear and from up on this bluff it goes forever.
—A bluff, yeah. Kesey on a bluff—that’s brilliant! When can you get out here?
I’ve never been to Detroit, know nothing about it, really, except Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, and Eminem, whom Zadie Smith just interviewed for Vibe. I can’t make this make sense, but there are all these connections. Maybe they don’t mean anything, but damn it feels like the air is alive with something. Purpose. Possibility. Fate. Steve’s been there a few months so far. Lived in New York before this, on a bus before that. Travelling knife salesman before that. Fake sunglass distributor before that. Con-artist, hustler tendencies all the while. Going any further back than that was puberty and sneaking into Portland gyms to play ball or into the Memorial Coliseum to get autographs from visiting NBA players. We knew all the unlocked doors and secret passageways, and if we ever got caught for anything we knew how to talk. When Em’ played the Rose Garden a few months ago we hopped a railing from our upper level seats, went in one of the floor exits pretending to be with someone with a backstage pass, and squeezed our way front row. Hey you, kid—Zadie Smith’s voice goes in my head—can you do that?
But Steve doesn’t answer when I call his cell and his voicebox is full. I hang up, ready to attend to the wonders before me. My girlfriend will be back soon with the coffee and we will be the only two people in the world for a while. When one of us calls out the other will respond. Everything is right here and it’s ours to explore. The water down there is cold and we forget what we do not touch. I say to my girlfriend, “Let’s go!” and we go. Down to the ocean for whatever comes next.
Kesey said that, while spending college summers in Hollywood getting bit parts, he learned stuff about people that he would use in his writing only a few years later. He also confirmed that he liked becoming someones else particularly extroverted someones (think magnanimous, larger-than-life personas: McMurphy’s uncontained exuberance; Hank’s heroism big enough to overflow kindness in good Nietzchean fashion). One way to read Kesey is that he was fascinated by the transformations afforded by art-making and allowed those transformations to spill over into life off the page. Kesey’s biographer Stephen Tanner, drawing from a letter Kesey wrote to his friend Ken Babbs, tells us that “writing was becoming more and more a religion with him and he was convinced he would be doing it all his life”; but by the middle of the decade he’d turned away from writing in favor of something bigger: to become a character rather than write them. Psychedelia offered a way to become someone else. First privately, as the drug breaks down the walls of the self. Then publicly, as drug use marks one as being among certain “types.” When the law caught up with Kesey and he faced a prison sentence for marijuana possession, he said, on the eve of his flight to Mexico, “If society wants me to be an outlaw . . . then I’ll be an outlaw, and a damned good one. That’s something people need. People at all times need outlaws.” Continuing: “Man should move off his sure center out onto the outer edges . . . the outlaw, even more than the artist, is he who tests the limits of life.” The drugs, which started as a way of helping the writing (famously, large chunks of both early successes were composed while high, and though likely apocryphal, legend has it that Bromden, whose narration is what makes Cuckoo’s Nest such a fine achievement, came to Kesey fully formed and from the void while the author was on mescaline) became if not an end in themselves then a means to the change in consciousness only they could bring about. And once that potential took hold, the offerings of literature paled for Kesey in comparison. For a storyteller, the story he could tell by making his private psychedelic experiences public surpassed the possibilities of a novel. The bus trip with the Merry Pranksters was to be the third novel that no bundle of paper ever could. And of course the bus was piloted by Neal Cassady, the flashpoint from whom so much midcentury culture radiated. It was Cassady who, Kesey said, “did everything a novel does, except he did it better ‘cause he was livin’ it and not writin’ about it.” But not just livin’ it, of course, either, because he was written about: in the books On the Road, Kool-Aid, others. (Cassady ended up writing about it, too, in his book, The First Third.) Kesey’s own The Day After Superman Died is a fictional account of the silencing of one of the country’s distinctive and loquacious voices as he counts railroad ties in the Mexican desert, and of Kesey’s end-days as an active guru in the counter culture.
If Kesey’s story is a sad story—and sometimes it feels like one—it’s because his drug experiments—and he’s probably one of the only people for whom experiments is really an accurate term—seem to have come at the expense of his writing rather than as a complement to it. Even as he continued to write, the practice seemed to lose its urgency for him. In a 1980 interview, he said, “I used to write as if the world was coming to an end but it no longer concerns me. I write as if the world will go on.” To read early Kesey is to encounter a writer for whom the world was coming to an end, a writer whose writing is fiercely desperate to articulate, define, and correct the present moment. And that particular kind of ambition must take a terrible toll. The author of Cuckoo and Notion is the someone you can imagine as advising his apprentices to “write like a terrorist just busted in and threatened to kill you all—like you have a semi-automatic machine gun at your skull,” as he later would his UO seminar students. Lidya Yuknavitch, who offers this quote in her memoir The Chronology of Water, adds that after making this statement Kesey “looked at us like we should already know that.”
Perhaps it wasn’t the drugs. Perhaps it’s because creation is a mysterious process and one’s moment may come only, if at all, when one’s moment comes that Kesey never wrote another book like the first two. The sadness of the story is not the project he undertook but the results he got. It’s common nowadays to invoke Kesey’s drug associations as a way of dismissing him on a mixture of aesthetic and ethical grounds. To stop writing, the thinking goes, or even to deprioritize it, was for Kesey to forgo a potential place in history and to announce himself as not a serious person but either a coward or a degenerate. Never mind that a true rebel, a true artist, risks taking real risks. Kesey was that rare writer anointed by critics and revered by readers, and to give that up was seen by some as a mistake regardless of what took its place. The fact that his later writings mostly—but not completely—warrant the dismissal of Kesey as a major writer make the stakes of his turn from writing loom that much larger in retrospect. If you consider that he didn’t get lost in acid but went to it volitionally then you have to accept that he had it all, knew he had it all, and still wanted something bigger. He wanted transcendence for himself and for everyone else. Through his writing he could share what he found with drugs. That he wanted to share not just a communication of insight but insight itself with people speaks of generosity, his willingness to cut out the middleman even when the middleman was he. The success or failure of that project could not have been judged a priori, and to forget this is to make a fallacy of hindsight and to cede cynicism the day.
Editor’s Note: In Part II of Parker’s essay, the author considers Kesey’s ties to the “pantheon of writers whose lives threaten to overshadow their work.” What did it mean for Kesey to be “as big as he had it in him to be”?