Love and Grief United

The life and death--and struggle with death--of Ken Kesey

When I heard on the morning of Nov. 10 that Ken Kesey had died, my thoughts catapulted back to the first time I visited his farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. It was a hot afternoon in August 1987, exactly 20 years after the Summer of Love, which Kesey had helped to germinate. But the Age of Aquarius already seemed like ancient history. Most Americans had come to view the counterculture of that era as a kind of quaint fad, a fashion trend on a par with the bobbed hair and short skirts of the Roaring '20s. On the strength of his first two novels--One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest(1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)--Kesey had been hailed as a possible heir to Hemingway's throne; by the time I met him, he was seen by many of the literati as an embarrassing anachronism who had capitalized on the anti-establishment sentiments of a naive epoch and used his pyrotechnical prose to disguise a fatal lack of substance.

But the author had recently offered compelling evidence to the contrary: Demon Box, his first new book in 13 years. It was a loose collection of stories and essays united by a common theme: Kesey's struggle to come to terms with his personal failures and with the failure of the '60s counterculture to deliver on its utopian promise.

I had come to interview him about the book, but I didn't have an actual appointment because I had been unable to get him on the phone. Every time I called the farm, Kesey was either in town, out in the field, or taking a nap. Sensing my frustration, his wife, Faye, suggested I simply drive out to the farm that afternoon. Kesey would, she said, "probably" be there.

As I drove up the gravel driveway through a grove of pine trees toward the huge red barn where the Keseys had lived since 1967, my mouth went dry and my palms began to sweat. I wasn't certain my presence would be welcome. I pulled to a stop in front of a large open garage and spotted someone crossing through its shadowy depths. The broad, powerful wrestler's torso and boulder-sized head were unmistakable. Kesey glanced over at me as I pulled the keys from the ignition and then continued on through a door that led to the barn's interior.

I stepped into the stinging sunlight. Flies buzzed about my ears, barn swallows dove to partake in the abundant insect life and blues music blasted from unseen speakers. The front door to the barn lay wide open. I made my way toward it, the back of my throat closing as I attempted to swallow. The door opened into a dark, cool, cavernous expanse in which no life stirred.

I knocked. I yelled hello. Knocked again, yelled again.

The blues blared on, and the subterranean depths remained eerily still.

I wandered back across the front yard, wondering if I should abandon the assignment or persist until Kesey kicked me off the place. I continued past a corral full of brown and white llamas and then past a hay shed. Then past a little log cabin, its interior littered with an array of dusty tape recorders and reels of film--just a portion, I figured, of the miles of footage that Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters shot during their psychedelic trip across the United States, which Tom Wolfe immortalized in 1968's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Then past a tool shed in which every rake, hoe, shovel, hammer, screwdriver and spade vibrated with the neon colors of fluorescent paint.

I stopped finally at a barbwire fence. Just beyond it, slumping into the thick grass like a psychedelic compost heap, was Further, the Pranksters' legendary 1939 International Harvester School bus. In 1964, they slathered it with a vertigo-inducing collage of phosphorescent mandalas and careened across North America, spraying sparks that ignited a hallucinogenic grass fire that consumed a generation. The mandalas had faded, the colors receding into rusty metal. Further's accordion door lay half-open, the glass cracked, its passengers long departed for parts unknown.

I turned to walk back to my car, and my gaze crossed the doorway of the little log cabin. Sitting in it was Kesey--"the Chief," "the non-navigator," "Captain Marvel" himself--his eyes fixed on me like a pair of bright-blue gas jets. They remained on me as I walked toward him, and as I drew closer, I could see how the curly red hair that boiled around his ears and the back of his neck had grayed, how deep fissures had eaten into his imposing forehead.

I introduced myself. His enormous fingers enveloped my hand. Then he returned to the task at hand: smoothing a small patch of wet cement with a trowel. "Joe!" he hollered abruptly into the farmyard. Without looking at me, he mumbled a cryptic explanation: "Joe's going to get his footprint made today." He hollered again. "Jooooeee!" A black Labrador appeared, wagging his thick tail excitedly. He dutifully submitted his paw. Kesey pressed it into the cement, and then he took a stick and scrawled beneath the paw print, "Joe the Dog."

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