Love and Grief United

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

So began my strange and wonderful weekend in Ken Kesey's Krayon Kolored Kingdom. I quickly discovered I would not be able to interview him, at least not in any conventional sense. My first earnest questions were met with tightlipped responses.

"So are you writing anything at the moment?"

"No."

But he didn't seem to mind me following him around on his eclectic assortment of chores, which included feeding the cows, horses, llamas, peacocks and miniature billy goats; mending fence posts; and moving irrigation pipes. When I relinquished the role of interviewer, his reticence faded, and he appeared to warm to me. I was invited to stay for supper--and after supper, to spend the night. In the early morning hours, I found myself sitting on a couch with him in the barn's cathedralesque interior. The floor gleamed with a massive hand-painted zodiac. On it rested a two-foot-tall ball of string, and beside the ball sat an upright piano with A Grateful Dead Song Book on its music stand. The walls were painted in primary colors--reds and yellows that vibrated off each other in the corners so the room seemed simultaneously to expand and contract.

"Say, I've got a movie you should see!" Kesey said, as if struck by a sudden revelation. He rooted through a chaotic assemblage of videotapes and surfaced with a copy of The Horse's Mouth, a 1958 adaptation of a Joyce Carey novel. In it, Alec Guinness plays anarchist painter Gully Jimson. Jimson is no Academy-trained aristocrat turning out tasteful landscapes for the elite. He is a conniving con artist, a deadbeat and a scrounger, willing to manipulate and exploit anyone and everyone to realize his one overriding aspiration: to find a stretch of wall large enough to contain the mural that he's sure will be his masterpiece. Guinness' portrayal of Jimson is hilarious and exhilarating, and no one seemed more capable of appreciating it than Kesey. He doubled over with laughter, and afterward, his blue eyes blazed with excitement. "When we first saw this movie in 1958, we were amazed," he explained.

By "we," he was referring to his classmates at Wallace Stegner's legendary Stanford writing program, including Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ed McClanahan and Wendell Berry. "We never realized people could live like that," Kesey said. "I don't see anybody doing that these days--living only for art."

At Stanford and after, Kesey wholeheartedly embraced the concept of the artist as outlaw, as an agitator who wages a one-man jihad against conformity. He refused to confine himself to the comfortable womb of the literary life: tapping out books in a cozy little office, giving interviews to Sunday supplements and public broadcasting stations, elaborating on his recurrent themes in literary quarterlies and university lecture halls. Instead, Kesey bounded into the public spotlight in the costumes of comic-book superheroes and goaded American youth into abandoning the I-Like-Ike uniformity of the 1950s. He didn't just chronicle his times; he helped shape them.

"This wasn't a guy quietly taking notes," John Fleckner, an archivist for the Smithsonian Institution, observed.

But becoming a cultural icon carries a stiff price. As the years passed, in the public's mind, the outlandish costumes became the man. Kesey's identity blurred with that of Wavy Gravy, the Official Clown of Woodstock, and fewer and fewer regarded him as a serious writer. But as I discovered on my second night at the farm, beneath the crazy outfits and three-ring antics, there were hidden depths in both the man and his writing.

The Keseys threw a dinner party that night. Their oldest daughter, Sharon, came with her husband, and so did a half-dozen friends and their children. After feasting on a huge salmon, Kesey led the kids around the farm like a Technicolor pied piper. He did magic tricks, got Joe the dog to jump through hoops and climb seal-like onto the giant ball of string, and let the miniature billy goats out of their pen so they could play king of the hill on a small mound of grass--much to the children's giggling delight.

"All right, kids," he said at last. "Let's all light candles." He lit a candle for each and one for himself and then said, "Follow me!" And off they went, like a string of luminescent pearls, into the inky depths of the back yard, all the way to a metal railing with a strange abstract altar on it. "Okay, now put your candles here." And one by one, he helped them fix their candles upon the altar. Only after all of them were set did I look down and see his son's tombstone nestled in the lush grass.

Kesey's youngest son, Jed, had been a wrestler at the University of Oregon, just like his father. But he died in 1984 when the team's van crashed on a winding Oregon road. In retrospect, this staggering loss seemed strangely preordained: the fear of death and man's obsession with triumphing over it was the central theme of Kesey's masterpiece, Sometimes a Great Notion, published in 1964, the year Jed was born.

In his working notes for the novel, Kesey had written: "Moma and daddy or Chuck [Ken's brother], or Faye--each of those words when touched with death rip a sound like a bell in my head I can hardly stand."

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