the oregon twister and the blueberry bushes
I'm pondering the many twists this guy's remarkable life took. First, there's the fact that a tough, large Oregon farm kid decided to go to Stanford University on a writing scholarship. There seems to be no doubt that his background in physical labor and wide-open spaces helped him a lot. I wonder if he also suffered some feeling of insecurity, having to prove himself in these lofty planes of academia. Not to psychoanalyze, but this would help explain the extraordinary aura of confidence he developed. I guess a farm boy had to develop an aura to walk around Stanford and not feel intimidated.
Okay, then let's look at his amazing first novel. I remember how "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" kicked my mind wide open when I read it. Absolutely killer book. Think of all the ground he covered in that book. He took us *way inside* a mental institution -- he did not cower a bit from the task. He came up with a great new word for Big Brother -- "the combine". He wrote hilarious dialogue. The irony here is that Kesey couldn't stand the movie with Jack Nicholson, and was involved in lawsuits with the filmmakers for years. Kesey never saw the movie, so he says. I guess this reveals something about him I wouldn't realize otherwise -- possibly the only sign of self-doubt in his entire career. I'm sure the movie was in many ways unsatisfactory to him -- I remember a quote from him, "They left out the combine!" -- true, true. But it was also a nearly perfect movie, two hours of purely wrenching and gripping stuff -- a movie that nobody will ever forget. I think everybody should read the book and see the film -- the book is a richer intellectual experience, but the film comes to life much more with the sad humanity of the characters, due to the amazing performances and the subtle direction.
OK, so he writes a world masterpiece in 1962 and then writes a second epic, "Sometimes A Great Notion", which takes us back to Oregon. The Paul Newman movie based on this book is also worth watching. Both the book and the movie are underrated.
Then comes the bus trip and the acid tests. This is what Kesey is most famous for. I don't have stats on this, but I would bet that more people read "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" every year than read all Kesey's own books put together. Kesey adopted Neal Cassady, straight outta jail, and gave him a new lease on life to carry him through the 60's. He created in "the bus called Further" the greatest transportation metaphor (as the Onion might say) since the Titanic. You gotta love him for this, even though I like to think of Kesey as more than a trippy acidhead, and I don't really like the image this leaves him with.
I don't know too much about the rest of Kesey's life. I know he never wrote another definitive great work, but he sure gave it a few spirited tries. And who knows -- maybe a late-period masterpiece will emerge, "Billy Budd" like, from his left-behind writings or even from his mostly-ignored published works.
I mostly remember that in one of his novels, the About the Author points out that he spends his time growing blueberries on his Oregon farm. As a kid, that just knocked me out. That's the way I want to go out -- harvesting blueberries.
Think also about the fact that he married his high school sweetheart, stayed happily with her towards the end and had four kids named Shannon, Sunshine, Jed and Zane. It's sad that Jed died in a car accident in 1984. But it's nice that Zane runs Key-Z.com today. I never met any of the Kesey's but I remember seeing Zane at a book booth at a Grateful Dead show a few years ago -- he looks a lot like his dad.
I think history will remember Kesey as one of the great modernists, as well as an a very compassionate and humane person. It's possible that too much LSD blunted his writing career. Or maybe not, who knows? It did not blunt his awesome humanity or decency.