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."

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."

In the book, Kesey used the Wakonda River as a symbol of death, the cold and indifferent power of the universe that eventually crushes all men despite their best efforts to survive. In the novel's climax, logger Hank Stamper desperately tries to save his best friend, Joe Ben, after a falling tree pins Joe on his back in the river's shallows. Miles from help, the water rising over Joe's mouth, Hank attempts to keep him alive through mouth-to-mouth respiration. Kesey first describes the event from Joe's point of view:

But beneath the water, in the close, cold dark, the fix was as bad as it was above. And as humorless. More so, actually. Still . . . there was something happening. Not funny the way Joe liked, but funny like it was somebody else's joke. And the laughter was no more his laughter than the grin was his grin. They came from someplace else. They started coming over him right after the water completely covered his face. Black and cold. Shock and horror, then . . . this funny thing swimming up out of the dark. Like something'd been there all along and just waiting for it to get dark enough. Now, in tight silence beneath the water, Joe feels it trying to fit into the skin of him, trying to eat away the thing he is inside, and fit into his skin. A black, laughing cancer trying to take over the shell of him.

Then Kesey abruptly switches to Hank's point of view as he helplessly watches his friend succumb to the disorientation of oxygen deprivation:

A bubbling of hysterical mirth erupted in Hank's face just as he was bending to deliver another breath to Joe. It startled him so he lost his lungful of air. He stared, frowning, at the now placid spot where the strange laughter had exploded. Then gulped another lungful of air and plunged his face into the water, feeling with his lips until he found Joby's mouth . . . open in the dark there, open and round with laughing. And huge; like an underwater cave, it's so huge, like a drain hole at the world's deepest bottom, rimmed with cold flesh . . . so huge it could empty the seas. And the current swirling down in a black spiral, filling it to laugh again. . . . He did not attempt to force his cargo of air into that lifeless hole. He withdrew his face slowly and stared again at the surface of water that lay featureless and unruffled over Joe. No different from any of the rest of the surface, all the way across the river, all the way to the sea.

When his son was killed two decades later, Kesey's long-held fear that the river of death would claim one of his own was realized. "With Jed's death," he later recalled, "what I finally came to grips with was that love and grief have to be united. As soon as you really love somebody, at some point, you're going to grieve.

"Jed's death was the most profound thing that ever happened to any of us, our whole family. The usual thing that you do--you're so crushed by it--is that you turn it over to somebody else, and they take care of the body and the coffin and the grave. But we just didn't. I had friends and family enough that we, by God, we began to build that coffin and dig that hole, and I was so glad. You know, when you're sticking a shovel in the ground and throwing dirt or hammering nails, you're doing something. You've got something to do with your hands, and you join in to do something that's been going on for thousands of centuries: taking a loved one and dealing with it. When you stop dealing with it and turn it over to somebody else, you lose something important. We have to reach back and get ahold of our deaths and our births and our marriages and our children and bring them back to us instead of turning them over to Sesame Street and the mortician on the corner and a school board that you don't want any part of."

That night on the farm--20 years after the high-flying dreams of the Summer of Love had augured into the earth--Kesey had at last seemed to have gotten hold of this particular death. There was nothing morbid or eerie or even sad about the candle-lighting ritual he performed with those children. It felt profoundly joyous and healthy. There he was, still including his son as he played the very same games with these children that he must have once played with Jed.

Death was never far from his thoughts in his later years. His best essays and short stories were about the deaths of Neal Cassady and John Lennon and the shootings at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. His last piece, in the Oct. 25 issue of Rolling Stone, dealt with Sept. 11.

But the subject did not consume him. I saw Kesey another half-dozen times after that first visit to the farm and always found him filled with the irrepressible optimism of youth, a stubbornly sunny conviction that all things were still possible. And though his endless schemes for raising the consciousness of his fellow Americans often seemed impractical, naive or plainly harebrained, I couldn't help admiring the man's resilience. It seemed as if no blow was big enough to break him, that his energy and enthusiasm were inexhaustible.

But they weren't, of course. On Nov. 10, at 4:30 in the morning, the river claimed him. He was buried in a tie-dyed coffin in a grave beside his son that was dug by his children, grandchildren and friends. The headstone bore a simple legend: "Sparks Fly Upward."

David Weddle is a graduate of Corona del Mar High School and spent his formative years in Orange County. He is the author of "If They Move . . . Kill 'Em!" The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah and is currently writing a book about Beverly Hills for William Morrow.

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