Monday, March 16, 2009
(Ken Kesey, above and right, around the time he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Ken Kesey grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. From as early as he could remember, his father had him and his younger brother Joe shooting, running, swimming, fishing, wrestling, boxing, and running rapids. Fred Kesey also instilled in his sons the value of self reliance and independence. He must have been proud of Ken, who went on to become a star runner and football player, and a champion wrestler in both high school and at the University of Oregon. (If you're a champion at 174 pounds, as Kesey was, it means you can handle pretty much anybody who comes your way.)
Kesey embodied a certain sort of backwoods ruggedness, and he fully understood the visceral appeal of the macho ethic. But he wanted something more; this is what made him Ken Kesey. So after college, in 1958, he enrolled in Stanford University's graduate writing program, a self-enclosed, arty community.
Tom Wolfe, our greatest living writer, has always had the ability to convey what is admirable about certain people, to make his heroes our heroes. He did this with Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, and he did it with Kesey in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Wolfe described the scene at Stanford thus:
"[Kesey] had Jack London Martin Eden Searching Hick, the hick with intellectual yearnings, written all over him....And their cottage on Perry Lane -- well, everybody else's cottage was rundown in a bohemian way, simplicity, Japanese paper lamp globes and monk's cloth and blond straw rugs and Swedish stainless steel knives and forks and cornflowers sticking out of a hand-thrown pot. But theirs was just plain Low Rent. There was always something like a broken washing machine rusting on the back porch....Somehow it was perfect....to have him and Faye on hand to learn as the Perry Lane sophisticates talked about life and the arts."
Well, we all know what happened next.
Kesey took a job working nights at a mental institution in nearby Menlo Park, where he volunteered to take an experimental drug, lysergic acid, later known as LSD. He often talked to the inmates, sometimes while under the influence of the drug. This was the inspiration for Cuckoo's Nest, a novel of such extraordinary power that it became an immediate hit upon publication in 1962, and has since become a classic.
The book revolves around Randle Patrick McMurphy, a swaggering con who has faked mental illness in order to escape the drudgery of work detail at a regular prison. He demonstrates all the bluster and charm that one senses Kesey had at his disposal. But Kesey also understood and sympathized with the sad and broken creatures most of the inmates of the mental institution were. The book is narrated by one of them, a huge, mute (by choice) Indian named Bromden, disparagingly called Chief Broom by the attendants because of his cleaning job. McMurphy briefly gives the other inmates a taste of freedom and self respect before he is subdued by the machinery of the institution.
Two years later, Kesey came out with Sometimes a Great Notion, about an Oregon logging family, and the conflict between two brothers, one a neurasthenic Yale graduate, the other the personification of backwoods machismo Kesey was so well acquainted with. This book never gained the same popularity as Cuckoo's Nest, but it did achieve critical acclaim.
This book was also made into a movie, starring Paul Newman as the tough brother. Ironically, Kesey himself looked a bit like Newman, minus some prettiness and plus some testosterone. (The movie might more appropriately have starred Kesey as the tough brother and Newman as the Yale graduate.)
After this Kesey became more involved with the nascent LSD movement, and led a group of proto-hippies -- the Merry Pranksters -- on a cross country expedition in a bus called Furthur. It was this expedition that Wolfe devoted the majority of Acid Test to. The group included a couple holdovers from the Beat era, most notably Neal Cassaday, a friend of Jack Kerouac's. But for the most part they were feckless acidheads who would have gotten into trouble on numerous occasions had Kesey not been steering the bus, both literally and metaphorically.
One scene from the book has stuck with me all these years. At one point, the group is partying with some Hells Angels. Sonny Barger, their fearsome leader at the time, calls Kesey out for having casually insulted another Angel ("Nobody -- nobody -- calls an Angel a bullshit person"). Kesey, calm as ever, merely tells Barger that he knew the Angel. Kesey wasn't confrontational about it, but he never lost his starch; he didn't back down from his statement, but he didn't expand on it; and he made his answer just confusing enough to take the volatile Barger aback for a moment, which was enough to defuse the situation.
Throughout the book Kesey constantly plays the role of the friendly, unpretentious, beneficent peacemaker who always seems to be in control of the situation. And he controls it not through intimidation -- though he could have been as intimidating as anyone -- but through sheer force of personality.
Which, come to think of it, is not a bad definition of charisma.
Kesey was a superman. He could outmacho the meanest, yet eloquently identify with the weakest. And he used his power for protection (and personal exploration) rather than for aggression. He did it in his writing, and he did it in his personal life.
Which, come to think of it, is not a bad definition of a hero.