THE ROBERT KIRSCH AWARD 1991 : Ken Kesey: Prophet in His Own Country

Bowden is a journalist living in Arizona and Mexico. His most recent book is "Desierto" (Norton).

He is famous for being famous. He is not taken seriously. He has become a footnote to an era that much of American society wants to forget ever happened. He has failed at the literary game where success is a shelf of books produced at regular intervals, that thing called a body of work. His best book, "Sometimes a Great Notion," came very early on and now broods out of sight, a sunken ship in the dark water at the mouth of that safe harbor where our beliefs are securely moored, a navigational hazard that threatens to rip out the bottom of our unsinkable craft, a dreadnought we have named Culture. There is that bus ride of course, that drug-fueled adventure in 1964 that has kept him chained ever since to the psychedelic machine through some 30-odd editions of Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Then there was the bust for marijuana, the flight to Mexico, the months in jail--a fistful of untoward moments such as normally decorate the covers of supermarket tabloids.

From time to time, he lurches back into print with odd volumes--"Kesey's Garage Sale," "Demon Box," "The Further Inquiry," and that slumgullion stew of a novel he whipped out with 13 writing students at the University of Oregon (with the author listed--God have mercy!--as O. U. Levon) called "Caverns." His two early books, "One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion," keep finding readers and paying royalties. But Ken Kesey himself has a ghostly reputation as a young hot-once-upon-a-timewriter who went a little nuts and then disappeared . . . up in Oregon somewhere? Right? Up there on some farm, I hear. They made some movies out of his stuff, didn't they? A curious fate for a man who has been tending shop at the same stand now for 30 years and has written some of most searing pages about the emptiness of this big country we all live in.

Like George Bush, he is a prisoner of the '50s, a man struck by the order, dullness, dumbness, suicidal tendencies and pointlessness of mid-century America, the America of the empire, the America that was going to put its stamp on a century, the America with its arteries clogged with things and its soul left at some pawn shop along the way in order to raise the cash for guns. Of course many of us kind of like this prison, and busy ourselves with checking the padlocks and adding more bars to the windows--so the burglars can't get in, honey. Kesey is the man trying to break out. All his work is about prisoners, some aware of the cage and rattling the bars, the rest resigned to doing their time.

"We never claimed to know precisely when the birth of this New Consciousness would take place, or what assortment of potions might be required to initiate contractions, but as to the birthplace we had always taken it for granted that this shining nativity would happen here , out of the ache of American labor.

"Europe was too stiff to bring it off, Africa too primitive, China too poor. And the Russians thought they had already accomplished it" (from "Demon Box").

"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" takes place in an asylum, and though the locations change from book to book, this sense of bondage is constant in Kesey's work--as is the struggle. Kesey's world is a place with lots of space for love and little space for sentiment. Nature is a big-ticket item in his books, but this time nature is not that soft, comforting mother--"For this land was permeated with dying; this bounteous land, where plants grew overnight, where Jonas had watched a mushroom push from the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of a hat . . ." (from "Notion"). History hangs like dead weight over those who know it and those who do not: "You could never understand it all. You just want a reason, two or three reasons. When there are reasons going back two or three hundred years . . ." (from "Notion").

And of course, the '60s, that time that never seemed to have occurred and that can be barely remembered, is a wound he keeps licking. Kesey has become a symbol of the '60s despite the fact that he keeps writing about its failings, its shortcoming and its one solid virtue, a virtue summed up by the word further . Or at times Further, the name first painted on the front of that legendary bus. Through some happy accident, Neal Cassady of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" has become a permanent part of Kesey's life on the bus. And so what is normally unwritten history in a culture has, in this instance, been richly recorded.

Kesey's got all the tricks we ask of writers, that ear for dialogue, that ability to create characters that live on the page, that simple conflict presented early on in the story that causes us to cheer for one side against another. He can write that pretty sentence, fill that blank page. There is a bounce to his prose and to the people in his books as they rampage around. He makes us laugh. None of this seems to impress him much, and he pops off occasionally against serious writing in our time and suspects that comic books or popular music or maybe movies will be the stuff people will look back at a century or two from now when they want to understand our time.

In his own case, I think he is wrong. Because Kesey also has an obsession, with something he calls entropy at times; at other times he calls it madness, then again he'll say it's emptiness. And what he writes disturbs anyone who reads it. He is not the writer who sets out to capture and catalogue our culture's manners and morals, though that task occurs in his work. He is not the writer who seeks to focus on our interior hells and chucks society while he pursues the demons of the individual, though such moments also occur in his books. He is that old-fashioned kind of writer, the moral critic, the prophet without a prophecy, a person who is cut from that moth-eaten old bolt of wool we'd forgotten about up in the attic, the stuff Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name two, were cut from. He asks questions and can't give us answers. But he has these bothersome questions, the main one being: What are we going to do about this emptiness, this lack of dreams, ambitions, visions. We no longer have promises to keep, miles to go before we sleep, so we just content ourselves with meeting the mortgage payments on a continental empire we seem to have inherited. In Kesey's books people are afraid, afraid of this emptiness and all the dope and merry pranks cannot disguise this fact:

"I allowed that it could be a possibility. 'But don't think it's the people I'm fascinated by so much as the puzzle. Like what is crazy? What's making all these people go there? Mean what an interesting notion this metaphor of yours is, if I've got it right--that modern civilization's angst is mechanical first and mental second?'

" 'Not angst ,' he corrected. 'Fear. Of emptiness. Since the Industrial Revolution, civilization is increasingly afraid of running empty' " (from "Demon Box").

There is an image in "Sometimes A Great Notion" of a buck deer swept out to sea that is found by a fishing boat and hauled aboard. The deer lies on the bottom of the small craft almost catatonic, and terrified. When the boat nears shore, that beckoning shore of America F. Scott Fitzgerald celebrated and struck a note of wonder about as he ended "The Great Gatsby," the deer jumps and swims back out to sea, still terrified, swims to . . . well, to certain death? A new future? Kesey can't tell us, he can just ask. In "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" he asks what the world has come to when the lunatics may be the only sane people. In "Sometimes A Great Notion" he asks what kind of future is possible when we have run out of country, are down to felling the last trees, and the choice presented is between a brutal individualism that we all secretly love and can no longer afford, and a dreary collectivism that stills our heart when we even think about it. And in "Demon Box" we find ourselves in the same room with a soul-sapping entropy, a tempting and fashionable insanity, and a demon who polices our thoughts and eats us out of house and home. What do we do when we know but cannot act, can see but cannot move? Kesey doesn't really know--his protagonist in the book leans back in the woods and watches as two mean vagabonds, aping the mannerisms of the '60s, strip a drunken overweight woman, herself a captive of vague memories of flower power, and then fondle her large breasts.

Kesey is wrong when he writes off books as unimportant. Anyone trying to get a handle on our times had better read Kesey. And unless we get lucky and things change, they're going to have to read him a century from now too. Because that bus called Further hasn't gone far enough yet for us to escape the trap we find ourselves in. We've still got this hollow feeling in our guts, this emptiness as we go slowly insane in our treasure house and putter around the mansion dusting off our large collection of things.

Jesus, sometimes this feeling gets so bad we need a little war just to perk ourselves up. In "Sometimes A Great Notion" the head of the hell-for-leather Stamper clan is old Henry, an 80-year-old man who refuses ever to give in. He is that best part of ourselves we think at times and that worst part of ourselves we know at times. He is our war against the land, our mindless pursuit of the work at hand so that we do not have to wonder why we are doing this work:

"The trucks! The cats! The yarders! I say more power to 'em. Booger these peckerwoods always talkin' about the good old days. Let me tell you there weren't nothin' good about the good old days but for free Indian nooky. An' that was all. Far as working', loggin', it was bust your bleedin' ass from dark to dark an' maybe you fell three times. Three trees! An' any snot-nosed kid nowadays could lop all three of 'em over in half an hour with a Homelite. No sir. Good old days the booger! The good old days didn't hardly make a dent in the shade. If you went to cut you a piece you can see out in these goddam hills you better get out there with the best thing man can make. Listen: Evenwrite an' all his crap about automation . . . he talk like you gotta go easy on this stuff. I know better. I seen it. I cut it down an' its comin' back up. It'll always be comin' back up. It'll outlast anything skin an' bone. You need to get in there with some machines an' tear hell out of it!"

Well, Henry, we did like you said. Now what?

The Robert Kirsch Award honors a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the American West. The late Robert Kirsch was The Times' book critic for 25 years.

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