Kesey & Co. : The gregarious author is back in the spotlight. His latest book is a joint venture with 13 of his students, but he's regaining his rhythm and his solo voice.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We've got him cornered.

Keeeeesssey! Ken Keeeeeeeeesssey! We want to talk to you.

For three decades or so, we, The Mainstream Media, have swarmed around Ken Kesey like cultural moths, whenever the hallucinogen-inspired, macho author's strobe-light brain stuttered to life.

Tom Wolfe squeezed the best journalistic juice from the trickster in "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." But that was back in 1968, when Kesey was still throwing flash powder on the flames of the so-called revolution by leading his band of Merry Pranksters on a psychedelic cross-country pilgrimage.

Since then, Kesey has given us the slip--darting from one goofy project The Media doesn't understand to the next.

But now we've got him, his back to the wall, in a vinyl booth at the Eugene Veteran's Club, a dimly lit bar where he entertains visiting heroes of the counter-culture: William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Gregory Corso.

This evening, however, he is surrounded by his latest gang, a bunch of graduate students from the University of Oregon. In December, Kesey and this class of his released a book they cooked up together in pressurized bursts of group creativity. They called it "Caverns," and gave it the pseudonymous author O.U. Levon (spell that backwards).

"Caverns" is an amusing lark, full of weird characters and goofy plot twists. It was a sufficiently intriguing project to make The Mainstream Media swarm around Kesey again.

But no one is calling "Caverns" literature.

As a New York Times Reviewer snipped, it lacks "a recognizable authorial style . . . a distinctive voice."

And that's why we've arrived in the drizzly Willamette Valley, at the tail end of the latest Media migration, determined to follow Kesey wherever he leads--as it happens, from a bookstore to bar to a Super Bowl party.

What we want to know is this: What happened to Kesey's own voice, one of the most original, defiant, inspiring voices in American fiction? What happened to the booming voice of Randle P. McMurphy, the "bullgoose loony" who raged and joked against conformity, passivity and wimpiness in the 1962 classic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?"

What happened to the integrity-drenched voice of "Sometimes a Great Notion's" Hank Stamper, the lumberjack with "never give a inch! " emblazoned over his cradle?

Keeeeeeesey! Ken Keeeeeeeeessey! You owe us an explanation! Why, with the world turning into everything you apparently dislike, why haven't you been writing?

Surrounded by his newly minted fellow authors in this perfectly dark and Oregonian bar, Kesey handles such questions with the gentle ease of a world-class wrestler (which he once was) swatting away a lunging toddler.

"There's a point where people just want an artist to keep doing what he's been doing," he says in his soft growl. "Kandinsky (a pioneer Expressionist) had been a great landscape painter. Then he started doing these things that had nothing to do with landscape."

The Establishment of his day rejected it, Kesey says. Just as they reject the extra-literary things he's been doing for 20 years: The carnival-like road shows, with jazz and jugglers and a guy who played a mean William Tell Overture on the harmonica; the quirky video projects, and, most recently, the concerts in which Kesey, decked out in top hat and tails and accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, reads his children's story, "Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear."

Even raising his family out on their 65-acre farm--all of it is art, Kesey says. Just as the Merry Pranksters' long, strange trip in their wildly colored bus "Furthur" was "as good an art work as anything Warhol did."

But The Media want to know: Isn't all this hamming around and hoo-ha just a dodge? Don't you owe America new characters who will speak in the undiluted Keseyan voice that rang out so clearly in the days before 1973's "Garage Sale," when you slipped into "like, far out" hippie-dip jive?

"What are you giving me (trouble) about?" Kesey demands, a touch of weariness creeping into his voice.

The once-great marathon star, Alberto Salazar, lives in Eugene, Kesey says. "He owns a restaurant not far from here. Why don't you go give him (trouble) for not running more marathons? You can only do so many marathons without running out of steam."

Kesey takes a sip of his drink. "I haven't just been loafing," he says, pain and anger edging out the weariness. "I've been doing stuff. But the press, they don't see something until it's all tied up in a bundle."

As Kesey talks, Alison, a dancer and the wife of co-author Jeff Forester, massages the ring-bedecked fingers of Lidia Yukman, another co-author, who met and fell in love with co-author Ken Zimmerman during the three-semester novel-writing class.

Now Yukman's eyes blaze. "Novels are being published every day!" she snaps. "En masse. Who needs another novel?"

Kesey was a fantastic teacher, she says. He was willing to share his knowledge and talent with 13 other writers. What could be more important than that?

Kesey smiles at his friend's loyalty.

"In this class, the work for me was not the novel or the movie that might get made," he says. "It was the class. That's the piece. That's the chunk. That's the consciousness.

"But you want it wrapped up," he says. "You want it to look a certain way."

Somewhere in the course of the conversation, Kesey catches a glimpse of the television hanging over the bar by the racks of booze.

"Look!" he hollers.

The others glance up from the shadowy ambience of the bar and see themselves in beaming bright color on the television screen as they were, earlier that day, at the university bookstore.

At the University of Oregon bookstore, 10 of "Caverns' " 13 co-authors are seated in a row, happily greeting each of the several hundred people of all ages and descriptions who have waited in line for up to two hours to have their copies of the book signed.

Kesey sits at the head of the table, wearing a blue-and-gray tie-dyed T-shirt over a red long-sleeved T-shirt and red socks under black loafers. A plastic fish skeleton is pinned to his chest.

There's an old photograph of Kesey on the wall of his home. He looks a lot like Paul Newman, who, as it happens, played Hank Stamper in the 1971 movie based on "Notion."

Now Kesey, 55, concedes that he looks 10 years older than Newman, who just turned 65 (but looks 45). The curly hair that sprouts out from under a seemingly omnipresent hat is gray now. Webs of wrinkles fan out from his eyes.

They are laugh lines.

But Kesey has done some crying, too. When his son, Jed, died in an accident in 1984, Kesey was devastated. His face still shows the impact of that wreck.

The eyes, however, still spark with mischief. And when he is amused, as he often is, his barrel chest pumps out laughter in big, foghorn blasts.

In the midst of the autograph party, with television reporters wagging microphones at Kesey, the author's mother shows up--a petite, energetic woman with neatly coiffed hair and a suit that would fit right in at the Eugene Women's Club.

"Ken was always gregarious," she says. "If he had to tie his shoes, he needed someone around to watch him." He was also a strong-willed kid, she says, but was "absolutely no problem as a boy. He never went out with the boys and got beered up.

"Later I could have killed him," she adds, refusing to discuss the days of drug-fueled adventures that eventually landed her son in jail for six months. "You just hang in with them and tolerate them and hope they find the right trail."

"Isn't my mom great?" Kesey asks later, as he cheerfully signs books and sips peppermint schnapps from a red aluminum flask sporting a Grateful Dead skull. "To her it's all part of a continuum."

That continuum again.

"When I was in high school," he explains, "I did a really strong ventriloquist show with a dummy. That's not unlike writing. You've got a character. He sits on your knee. You put words in his mouth."

Kesey went from ventriloquism to a hypnotism act, which he performed at fraternity houses. "It wasn't a far jump from hypnotism into drugs and writing," he says.

"Now I have grandkids and my brother has grandkids and all my friends have kids of 5 or 6. I'm beginning to get my magic tricks back out. To me, it's all the same stuff: The magic shows, the writing, the acid trips, the readings. It's what I've always been trying to do, the focus of my attention has always been magic. . . .

"Read 'A Farewell to Arms,' " Kesey continues, "and you think, this is a great magic trick Hemingway pulled on us. It is. It's a very good artistic trick. But it's a trick."

And now, Kesey says, he is trying to pull off the magic of a traditional novel again. He's not doing it for the Media who keep bugging him. Or for the culture that would seem to need a good jolt of "bullgoose looniness." He's doing it for himself. Sometime you have to decide, he said, "Are you the artist or the art? I want to be the artist again."

Wander from the book signing for a moment, and look, there is Kesey's literary trail.

"Sometimes a Great Notion" is on the shelf. Look what The Media said about it when it came out in 1964:

Playboy: "Raw American power."

Time: "As big and brawling as the country it describes."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer: "It gasps, pants, whoops and shrieks. You have to stand back in awe of Kesey's ability. . . . "

As for "Cuckoo's Nest," the store even has Cliffs Notes on it for Pete's sake!

Remember McMurphy, the character who arrives in the psychiatric hospital and immediately begins to incite the repressed, passive patients to rebel against the authorities--psychiatric and societal--that have cowed them?

Here's what the Cliffs Notes say: "He is an ace con man, but at the same time curiously honest--for he never pretends to be anything other than what he is . . . (But) as the patients become stronger, McMurphy becomes weaker. . . and he is forced to be what the others think he is. They can recognize themselves only through him, and he must continue to give them something to emulate."

Could the same be said of Kesey? Made a hero by the Mainstream Media, did he lose his ability to simply sit back and crank out powerful prose?

Or, more tragically, did he somehow lobotomize his talent with the enthusiasm for drugs that propelled him through the '60s? Would his fictional voice have been stronger if he hadn't kept using and didn't still use drugs?

"Could be," Kesey says.

"Probably so," he sighs.

"But if I could go back and trade in certain experiences I've had for brain cells presumably burned up, it would be a tough decision."

Meanwhile, "I want to do the best work I can do," he says. So he has been writing long and hard at a cottage he owns on the Oregon coast and in the study of his farmhouse outside Eugene. The new novel is tentatively called "Sea Changes."

"I'm getting my rhythm. Getting one word hooked to another, building tension, excitement--(but) you don't just pick it up and do it right away."

Kesey gets reflective.

"I reach into the mist and try to find the valve to turn this (literary voice) on . . . " he says. But "you can stand there and crack the whip at the Muses all you want, and they may not obey you. If they did, if discipline were all it took, Republicans would all be great writers."

"I'd still like to get two more Super Bowl rings," he says later, in one of his frequent comparisons of writing to sports. "But I'm also willing to admit it may not be within my capacity to do it anymore. You know when you're clicking and when you're not clicking. With this new book, if I am, I am. If not, not.

"I still have to feed the cows every day."

At the Kesey family farm, 15 minutes on winding roads from Eugene, folks slouch on a sagging couch, in beanbag chairs, on stairs--friends from the old days, neighbors, "Caverns" co-authors, Prankster Ken Babbs' son, the bass player from the "Tricker Squirrel" gig among others.

It's Super Bowl Sunday and they couldn't have found a finer, friendlier place to gather than this big red barn that Kesey himself converted.

Faye Kesey, Ken's high school sweetheart and wife of more than 30 years, putters in the kitchen, cooking up a big spread.

Someone has brought marijuana. Kesey rolls a joint in a cardboard box top. A 2-year-old, someone's daughter, tosses around a fuzzy red football. Joe, an old black dog, balances on a huge ball of twine.

In one direction, a television blazes. In the other, a huge picture window features a sweeping green landscape of sopping fields and dribbling trees with an intermittent rainbow thrown in for color.

Color is a major presence here: The floors in the big living room-kitchen-dining room are a red, blue, green and Day-Glo orange patchwork, with walls and stairs to match.

At half time, as everyone dines on salmon and salads, Kesey brings out a new book he has been talking about, a collection of stunningly stark, grisly photographs of war victims, shot by James Nachtewey in Beirut, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Northern Ireland.

Titled "Deeds of War," the book features an introduction written by Robert Stone, one of several illustrious authors--Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Tillie Olsen--who were students with Kesey in Stanford University's writing program.

An inscription by Stone in the book reads: "For Ken and Faye. With love always, these hard pictures are about endurance and perception which may be the things that get us by in the end."

Later, Kesey refers back to the book, using it as an illustration of why the U. S. government still needs nonconformists to stand up to it, whether over official policy in El Salvador, or a drug war that penalizes people who smoke pot.

"There is a theme I always deliver in my work, and I do it well," Kesey says. "There's a snake in the grass. Sometimes it's the government. Sometimes it's evil spirits. Sometimes it's some part of yourself.

"But there's an evil force and it attacks you (where) you are most vulnerable . . . It's the same force that causes fathers to shake their kids to death. Husbands to beat their wives."

It's the force that art opposes, Kesey thinks.

"That's what 'Cuckoo's Nest' is about. That's what 'Great Notion' is about: The small trying to stand up against a great force," he says. "But that force is getting stronger."

Kesey continues. One evening soon after his son died, he was watching television, he says. "And I saw a father coming down from the hills of Lebanon with a dark bundle in his arms."

The television reporters had just interviewed a U. S. Navy captain, who proudly said that, while he was unsure what his ship's big guns were hitting when they fired into the hills, he knew they were wreaking havoc.

"Then this man came down holding this dark bundle--his son," Kesey says. "I didn't know if he was a Shiite or Christian. All I knew was that he was a father, and he was hurting."

Kesey's eyes moisten and his tough wrestler's face goes slack. "All I know is that I'm on the side of the people who hurt, and against the people doing the hurting."

Kesey sips his schnapps. The gears shift. But that's later.

For most of the day, the gracious party host is in fine form, kicked back in a battered chair in a corner that his presence makes the center of the room.

When the local cable station's line blows out, smack in the middle of the Super Bowl, Kesey switches on a videotape of Carnaval in Rio. Bare-breasted women in feathered headdresses dance wildly as John Madden gives a play-by-play of the 49ers' Super Bowl rout.

And in the midst of it all Kesey abruptly stands up.

"Gotta feed the cows," he says.

A few minutes later, he's bouncing along on the seat of a blue tractor, towing a trailer laden with hay bales and a bunch of helpers: a couple of friends from the old days, a "Caverns" co-author and his girlfriend, several dogs and a reporter from The Mainstream Media.

As the tractor growls out over the green fields, a herd of cows falls in behind. When Kesey gives the word, his crew starts tossing hay off the side.

Joe, the old black dog, jumps down and gives the cows some trouble, snapping at their hoofs, then hops back onto a bale behind Kesey with his nose in the air.

"Proud of yourself, aren't you?" Kesey shouts, laughing.

Cheeks flushed from the cold, he wheels the tractor around by a boneyard of old cars and equipment, then heads back toward the barn.

The tractor's wheels slurp in the mud. Cows low. An orchestra of wind chimes sings from the trees.

And out in one of the green fields, the infamous old "Furthur" bus rests, settling into the mud, psychedelic paint faded and crinkling, lookout turret cracked, rain dripping on the rotting carcasses of old mattresses inside.

Only the Media seems to notice it.

That night, when everyone has gone, Kesey works on his new novel until dawn.

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