or, Sometimes a Cuckoo Nest…
Lots of people know the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even more people think they know it, basing that assumption on having watched the movie — which Kesey disowned. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say the shift of point-of-view changes the story entirely. And while Jack Nicholson admirably portrays a compelling movie character, that is not the Randle McMurphy — burly red-headed brawler — of Kesey’s novel.
Personally, I preferred Sometimes a Great Notion as a sweeping epic of intensely personal stories intersecting and weaving an incredible tapestry of human life with our strengths and foibles. This one, too, was made into a movie (starring Paul Newman) — perhaps not so glaring in its departure from story setting or plot lines. It’s still strikes me, however, as a prime example of how the genius involved in a book, with its various internal monologues, fanciful calls to the imagination, and editorial asides, cannot ever be “faithfully” translated to the visual medium of the movies.
Kesey sought to push his creativity beyond the constraints of books, though, launching the Merry Pranksters and a series of events of spontaneous performance and audience involvement fueled by LSD and called the “Acid Tests,” seminal events in the psychedelic evolution of the 1960’s San Francisco scene, helping to birth the Grateful Dead as a kind of “house band.” Reading of these antics as a teenager in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test not only whetted my appetite for more of Kesey’s creative craziness, it introduced me to Kesey’s fellow writing student at Stanford, Larry McMurtry.
Kesey’s open flouting of convention and societal norms caused him some serious grief, though, starting in 1965 when he was arrested for marijuana possession. Rather than face charges, he faked a suicide (badly — no one really believed he was dead) and fled to Mexico, living on the lam for 8 months. Upon returning stateside, he served out 5 months in a low-security “honor camp” prison near Redwood City, California.
Despite the ban on writing materials in prison, Kesey managed to keep a jail journal, using smuggled art pens and paper and sending bits and pieces out via visitors. The resulting multi-colored hand-crafted pages tell of life inside the prison and of the people there, both inmates and guards. “This is crazier here than the nuthouse ever was,” Kesey noted.
Unfortunately, the beautiful detail of his drawings — assembled into collages on boards measuring 18″ x 23″ — defied the printing limitations his publisher had and Kesey decided to put off publishing it.
Much later, as it turned out, as he kept working on it and completed it in the last years of his life. Kesey’s Jail Journal finally got published in 2003 — nearly 40 years after its inception — and provides a glimpse into this particular chapter in Kesey’s life.
Though known primarily for those first 2 novels, Kesey continued to produce more work, albeit at a slower publishing pace. Of the other books he wrote, my favorite is Demon Box, a collection of short stories, many centered around his life on a Oregon farm. Of those stories, there are 2 in particular that resonate with me, both tales about hearing of the death of a friend.
In “The Day After Superman Died,” Kesey’s character (Deboree) learns from some people passing through (and abusing his hospitality) of the death of his compatriot, Neal Cassady, original inspiration for Keruoac’s On the Road character of Dean Moriarty and later inspiration for Cowboy Neal in Grateful Dead lyrics. The story ends with a devastated Devoree clandestinely overhearing this news from the passing intruders, then listing and lamenting the names of so many people come and gone in a never-ebbing tide.
“…come back all of you.
Now go away and leave me.
Now come back.”
In “Now We Know How Many Holes It Takes to Fill the Albert Hall,” Kesey juxtaposes 2 contrasting scenes. In the first, the Merry Pranksters, along with some Hell’s Angels buddies, have been invited to London to meet the Beatles. At first, there’s some rough mingling with the local folks and rising tensions finally resulting in a thrown punch, a decked Brit, and an impending brawl — before John Lennon pops in, wearing a Santa suit and a fake beard, emanating peace, and says, “That’s enough.”
“And it was. The rumble didn’t erupt. He stopped it, just like that.”
Cut to years later, out on the farm, where Kesey has reluctantly allowed a drifter dubbed John the Groupie to come in from the cold — for one night only. Keeping his distance as best he can in the house, Kesey is sitting across the living room from his “guest” that evening, when suddenly, Howard Cossell interrupted the football broadcast to announce that John Lennon had been shot & killed.
“I turned to see if John the Groupie had heard the news. He had. He was twisted towards me in his seat, his mouth open, the last duck carcass stopped midway between tooth and table. We looked into each other’s eyes across the room, and our roles fell away. No more the scowling landowner and the ingratiating tramp, simply old allies, united in sudden hurt by the news of a mutual hero’s death.
We could have held each other and wept.”
To capture the raw emotional power of that moment that so many of us shared worldwide when we heard that news years ago takes a powerful magician of a writer. Simply re-typing the passage just now, I again felt that acute sense of personal loss though, like most people, I only knew John Lennon from afar.
Ken Kesey could do that, as the tears welling up as I typed that passage can attest.