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  In Memoriam.  Ken Kesey:  B: September 17, 1935 -- D:  November 10, 2001   Godspeed.

 
Ken Kesey: Final Passage 
by Larry Leonard (Photos from keseypics at Intreped Trips)


Westwind

The weather rolls from West to East
Lands passed are further blessed
Kaleidoscopy Klouds sail by
All wondering why
The days turn as they do
From old to new
But me and you
We see it through
And have a thing to say,
or two.

LL, at the cabin on the east fork, 11/10/01

     The time I interviewed him, we were alone.  He did not like to do that with the press.  A famous man is not safe in the company of just one journalist. 
     They called him the western man, but they were wrong.  Except for his courage and a streak of cussed independence, he was as far from Gary Cooper as a man can be.  He was, among other things, a politician. He was tribal in nature, skilled at sensing the needs of the clan.  This orientation toward people rather than place is reflected in his work, which, compared to that of some of his favorite authors, pays little attention to the man shaped by the land.  It is not that he lacked descriptive power, but rather that his major novels did not depend on their location.  The Stampers could have been in Canada, Alaska or Idaho.  His asylum could have been in any American city.

     The people in biographical, historical and satirical books are real people.  The people in a novel, even when based on actual human beings, are symbolic people.  All novels are symbolic in nature, and, at their deepest level, about the author.

                                              II

    Harry Lenhart, now working the business beat for the Portland Tribune, was in those days the editor of Oregon Magazine.  He sent me to Springfield to get the essence of the great author in a piece titled Ken Kesey at Midpassage.  When he read what I wrote about the great author, he said it was not definitive. 
     He was wrong.  I told him so at the time, and again as recently as last summer. My point in the piece was that a giant question mark was hanging over Kesey.  Nearly twenty years later, Kesey died, and the giant question mark went away.  This is not meant to suggest that Kesey was lazy or afraid during those decades.  The fact is that great novels find you, not the other way around.  The next great novel didn't find Kesey.  The question has been answered., 

     Before I interviewed him, I attended a meeting where he was present.  I recall describing it as like being on the far side of a black hole.  Everything in the universe was shooting out in my direction.  Then I went to meet with him.  Here's some of the text from the 1982 article. 

                                            III

Late February.  It has rained more this winter than just about any time in Oregon history.  Today, even when it isn't raining, it feels as if it is.  Something like the great humidity of the tropics, but ice cold and clammy.  The country around Kesey's farm is flat as a miter board.  There are no high spots of land -- just low and a little lower
    On the slope that descends from his house to the swamp stands what Kesey calls a Chuckasaurus, a homemade dinosaur constructed by Kesey's brother, Charles.  A perfectly round, Zen boulder sits in the trail from the parking area to the remodeled barn the Keseys call home.  The rock seems content in the faint rain shadows of the evergreens.  There is a Kwakiutl ceremonial mask made from a car fender hanging on a fence.  On the back of a pickup a sticker says, "God Bless John Wayne."

    A giant, brightly colored macaw sits on a perch over a slab of what looks like Myrtlewood.  The bird is almost always on that perch on that table, night and day, rain, snow, sleet and hail.  It has lived there through five Oregon winters.  There is no tether.  It can come and go as it pleases.  But it sits there under the naked branches of a deciduous tree in the icy rain, a stream of water dripping from its huge beak, staring at the visitor
    "Hi," it says.
     Fay Kesey answers the door.  Her hair is wrapped in a turban towel.  She is wearing a long housecoat.  'Ken's in his studio," she says, closing the door.  She will be seen only at a distance after that.  The Kesey children will not be seen at all.

   Kesey's studio is a shed made of half-round, debarked poles.  Half of it is dark and empty, an unused storage area.  The working end has a space heater, some ratty cabinets and old chairs, a few cardboard boxes, several lamps and a desk.  On the desk are some reference works, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the later sea stories of Ernest Hemingway, a portable radio, an odd, beat-up leather briefcase and Kesey's crumpled red handkerchief.  It has been a long, wet, miserable winter.
    Narrow, vertical windows flank the desk, casting bars of light over the writer as he leans back in a protesting old chair.  He is wearing a long-brimmed, leather visor, the kind so popular with the counter-culture set a decade or two ago.
    He has somewhat reluctantly agreed to do the interview.

    "I've got piles and piles of stuff I've worked on in the demon box,"  Kesey is saying, staring at a battered cardboard box sitting in a dark cubbyhole in a beat-up cabinet.
     He is more than aware of the Big Question the Outside World has about him -- this talent who could easily be an heir apparent to Mailer and Bellow, and maybe even Faulkner and Hemingway, for the mantle of the Great American Writer.  If only he would write more.  The question is, Why does it take eighteen years to write another novel?

His closest friend, Ken Babbs, says the question doesn't make sense.  Kesey has that demon box full of stuff.  It contains both published and unpublished, finished and unfinished pieces.  Ideas that stretch from Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) to today.  It contains wonderful allegories like the Rolling Stone article he did on the death of John Lennon, the Esquire piece about Abdul and Ebenezer, a bull and cow he owns; the themes covered in his strange revolutionary periodical, Spit in the Ocean, miles of  rambling, sarcastic, inventive, evasive, perceptive commentary to a googolplex of questions during an infinite number of interviews, all of which he hated because he "doesn't do well in one-on-one interviews..." and God knows what else that he has written or said.  Babbs insists it is a body of work.  Demon Box, aside from being an actual physical repository, also is apparently the working title for a rambling novel Kesey has been working on for some time. 

   There was one recent book, Garage Sale, a large, scrapbook-like work in content and size, an existential, cartoony collage of stuff from the demon box that Kesey must have thought said something important.    In the introduction, written in 1973 by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller, the book is described as chaotic, a vehicle, cynics would say, for credibility-by-association for Kesey's friends, or perhaps something tossed off to generate income  But Miller sees it, for all its weaknesses as a kind of modern American revolutionary history..

                                               IV

   From there, the article went into  the interview phase, which I am not transcribing here.  Perhaps one day, I shall, but not now.  On that day his brain was floating across the universe like an albatross soaring on the winds of space.  He talked of a sea novel, a Kwakiutl rock opera, the Sixties revolution and the New Man he supposed would be its legacy.  He talked of wax and strings and sailing things.  The dark room in the end of the wooden shed became many places and many times. 
   There is a Chinese object made of boxes within boxes within boxes.  I don't know the specific philosophical purpose behind the creation, but one rainy, cold winter day in 1982 I spent some time there.

    I know an author who has written sixty books.  He lives in Portland, and you have probably never heard his name.  Having written a small, very good novel that went nowhere, I envy Kesey's luck, or skill, or both, at getting attention for himself, and so his work.  In the beginning, P.T. Barnum-like, he painted a bus strange colors, named it "Further," and went on a road trip to introduce himself to the world.  He grabbed hold of the emerging culture from which we all suffer to this day, and made himself an icon in its pantheon.  That marketing genius created the name familiarity that allowed his literary genius to fulfill all of its possibilities.

    Recently, I interviewed science fiction legend, Ray Bradbury, then did a piece for this magazine.  Kesey read the piece, and sent the following email.

.                       Larry--
                        Good old Bradbury.  He was an early hero.
                        It came as quite a surprise that when he was
                        at the top of my heap he was barely known.
                        I like it that he's zoomed up with this late day
                        popularity.
                        --Kesey
                     _________
                  _/     | 
                 |_  FURTHER _| 
                        O       O 
 


 
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