Author, '60s icon Kesey dies
Wrote 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
GRANTS PASS, Ore. - Ken Kesey, whose LSD-fueled bus ride became a symbol of
the psychedelic 1960s after he won fame as a novelist with ``One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest,'' died Saturday morning. He was 66.
Kesey died at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, two weeks after cancer
surgery to remove 40 percent of his liver.
``He's gone too soon and he will leave a big gap. Always the leader, now he
leads the way again,'' said Ken Babbs, a longtime friend.
After studying writing at Stanford University, Kesey burst onto the literary
scene in 1962 with ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' followed quickly with
``Sometimes a Great Notion'' in 1964, then went 28 years before publishing his
third major novel.
In 1964, he rode across the country in an old school bus named Furthur driven
by Neal Cassady, hero of Jack Kerouac's beat generation classic, ``On The
The bus was filled with pals who called themselves the Merry Pranksters and
sought enlightenment through the psychedelic drug LSD. The odyssey was
immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 account, ``The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.''
``Anyone trying to get a handle on our times had better read Kesey,'' Charles
Bowden wrote when the Los Angeles Times honored Kesey's lifetime of work with
the Robert Kirsh Award in 1991. ``And unless we get lucky and things change,
they're going to have to read him a century from now too.''
``Sometimes a Great Notion,'' widely considered Kesey's greatest book, told
the saga of the Stamper clan, rugged independent loggers carving a living out
of the Oregon woods under the motto, ``Never Give A Inch.'' It was made into a
movie starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman.
But ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' became much more widely known, thanks
to a movie that Kesey hated. It tells the story of R.P. McMurphy, who feigned
insanity to get off a prison farm, only to be lobotomized when he threatened
the authority of the mental hospital.
The 1974 movie swept the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best
actor and best actress, but Kesey sued the producers because it took the
viewpoint away from the character of the schizophrenic Indian, Chief Bromden.
Kesey based the story on experiences working at the Veterans Administration
hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., while attending Wallace Stegner's writing
seminar at Stanford. Kesey also volunteered for experiments with LSD.
While Kesey continued to write a variety of short autobiographical fiction,
magazine articles and children's books, he didn't produce another major novel
until ``Sailor Song'' in 1992, his long-awaited Alaska book, which he
described as a story of ``love at the end of the world.''
``This is a real old-fashioned form,'' he said of the novel. ``But it is sort
of the Vatican of the art. Every once in a while you've got to go get a
blessing from the pope.''
Kesey considered pranks part of his art, and in 1990 took a poke at the
Smithsonian Institution by announcing he would drive his old psychedelic bus
to Washington, D.C., to give it to the nation. The museum recognized the bus
as a new one, with no particular history, and rejected the gift.
In a 1990 interview with The Associated Press, Kesey said it had become harder
to write since he became famous.
``When I was working on `Sometimes a Great Notion,' one of the reasons I could
do it was because I was unknown,'' he said. ``I could get all those balls in
the air and keep them up there and nothing would come along and distract me.
Now there's a lot of stuff happens that happens because I'm famous. And famous
isn't good for a writer. You don't observe well when you're being observed.''
A graduate of the University of Oregon, Kesey returned to his alma mater in
1990 to teach novel writing. With each student assigned a character and
writing under the gun, the class produced ``Caverns,'' under the pen name OU
Levon, or UO Novel spelled backward.
``The life of it comes from making people believe that these people are
drawing breath and standing up, casting shadows, and living lives and feeling
agonies,'' Kesey said then. ``And that's a trick. It's a glorious trick. And
it's a trick that you can be taught. It's not something, just a thing that
comes from the muses.''
Among his proudest achievements was seeing ``Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets
Big Double the Bear,'' which he wrote from an Ozark mountains tale told by his
grandmother, included on the 1991 Library of Congress list of suggested
``I'm up there with Dr. Seuss,'' he crowed.
Fond of performing, Kesey sometimes recited the piece in top hat and tails
accompanied by an orchestra, throwing a shawl over his head while assuming the
character of his grandmother reciting the nursery rhyme, ``One Flew Over the
Other works include ``Kesey's Garage Sale'' and ``Demon Box,'' collections of
essays and short stories, and ``Further Inquiry,'' another look at the 1964
bus trip in which the soul of Cassidy is put on trial. ``The Sea Lion'' was
another children's book, telling the story of a crippled boy who saves his
Northwest Indian tribe from an evil spirit by invoking the gift-giving
ceremony of potlatch.
Born in La Junta, Colo., on Sept. 17, 1935, Kesey moved as a young boy in 1943
from the dry prairie to his grandparents' dairy farm in Oregon's lush
Willamette Valley. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the
University of Oregon, where he also was a wrestler.
After serving four months in jail for a marijuana bust in California, he set
down roots in Pleasant Hill in 1965 with his high school sweetheart, Faye, and
reared four children. Their rambling red barn house with the big Pennsylvania
Dutch star on the side became a landmark of the psychedelic era, attracting
visits from myriad strangers in tie-dyed clothing seeking enlightenment.
The bus Furthur rusted away in a boggy pasture while Kesey raised beef cattle.
Kesey was diagnosed with diabetes in 1992.
His son Jed, killed in a 1984 van wreck on a road trip with the University of
Oregon wrestling team, was buried in the back yard.
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