Ken Kesey: The Artist and His Work
In the summer of 1967, as thousands of young people flocked to San Francisco, with flowers in their hair, Ken Kesey was quietly transported from the San Mateo County Jail in Redwood City to a Sheriff's honor camp in the coastal redwoods. Ironically, this camp was not far from La Honda, former home to Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. Kesey was serving a six-month sentence for marijuana possession following a rooftop bust in San Francisco, a fake suicide, a sojourn in Mexico, and an FBI chase on Highway 101 near San Francisco.
Many of us remember at least some of these details from reading Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, from Kesey's book, Demon Box, and from other sources of literary and cultural history. What was not well known until now is that Kesey wrote a book while he was incarcerated. Kesey's Jail Journal is a combination of letters, diary entries, poems, and artwork. Kesey's graphic style is impressive and intriguing, owing more to Dr. Strange than it does to Mr. Natural. And the book has a nice narrative line, the move from county jail to honor camp, and then the light at the end of the tunnel--freedom. It also has dramatic tension created by the racial mix of prisoners and guards and the constant possibility of violence.
It's an amusing book, and a fascinating inside look at jailhouse reality of the late 1960's. Things really were different then. The proximity to Kesey's old stomping grounds provides some funny bits, such as the day Kesey wanders off from a work detail looking to score a joint. He knocks on the door of a house that he remembers being inhabited by heads, but is greeted by the new tenant, a little, gray-haired lady. He asks her for aspirin, which she gives him, expressing her concern about local prisoners. "Goodness," she says, "you're not from the place where they got that dope fiend Kesey, are you?" "As a matter of fact, " he informs her, "I am the dope fiend Kesey."
Drugs of all sorts seem to be readily available at the honor camp. At various times Kesey has prescriptions for Librium and Valium. Friends also manage to smuggle in the drug that made the Kool-Aid famous. He tries to wait for a favorable time to drop, because "taking acid is pretty jittery business." But he gives in pretty quickly, because "the day is so sunny and the trees are so friendly."
Kesey gets off some good lines about being incarcerated, such as, "The thin mattress pads smell like a lecture in evolution." He also has an ongoing sense of natural theater, culminating near the end of the book in his description of a race riot broken up by an earthquake.
And just then . . . the floor started shaking--lights swinging, rumble of a freight train bearing down on us. It was an honest to God earthquake. . . Like God himself reached down and got us all by the collar and said 'You want to see riot?. . . I'll show you RIOT!' "
I think most readers will be impressed by the writing in this book--clean, crisp, sharp and observant. Kesey was on the beam, having his separate Summer of Love, courtesy of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department, and making the best of it, writing and drawing and trying to understand it all. This is the book that should have followed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). The writing is of the same high quality, vigorous and supremely confident, and it would have solidified Kesey's reputation as a world class wordslinger. But it was conceived as an art book, and as such was not ready for publication at the time. Instead, Kesey's next book was the haphazard Kesey's Garage Sale (1973), followed eventually by the gonzojournalistic Demon Box (1986).
So much for what might have been. Even in a best case scenario Kesey was not going to be the darling of the critics. He was too West Coast and too countrified. The proper career move would have been to relocate to New York City. If you insist on country, Mr. Kesey, there are some very nice areas upstate or in Connecticut. But Kesey was not about career moves. He was still, perhaps, about revolution, but most of all he was about home and family. The back to the land dream, of so much hippie lip-service and failed experiment, was what Kesey and his family lived. He went back home to Oregon with wife and kids, and settled down for the long haul.
In conjunction with the release of Kesey's Jail Journal, Viking Press issued Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey. Spit in the Ocean was the title of a literary magazine that Kesey published intermittently after his move home to Oregon. The idea was to eventually publish seven issues, with each having a different editor. Before Kesey's death there were six issues published, with editors including Timothy Leary, Ken Babbs, and Lee Marrs.
Chosen to edit Number 7 was Ed McClanahan, author of The Natural Man and Famous People I Have Known, a book that details some of his adventures with Kesey when they were both in the creative writing program at Stanford. With the help of former Pranksters and other collaborators, and with contributions from a stellar lineup of Kesey's friends and colleagues, he assembled a fitting farewell tribute to the Chief. There are pieces by writers Wendell Berry, John Daniel, Jim Dodge, James Baker Hall, Paul Krassner, McClanahan, Larry McMurtry, Lee Quarnstrom, Robert Stone, Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe. There are tributes from Gus Van Sant and Bill Walton. There is a good piece from Sterling Lord, literary agent for both Jack Kerouac and Kesey, and one from David Stanford, editor of both Kerouac's Some of the Dharma and Kesey's Jail Journal--not a bad daily double. There are stories from Pranksters George Walker and Ken Babbs, poems by Walt Curtis, Paul Zarzyski, and Robert Hunter, a song by Rosalie Sorrells, a haiku by Wavy Gravy, an elegy from Vic Lovell, and a tribute from Kesey's dog, Happy. Last but not least there are seven pieces by Kesey himself, some previously unpublished.
Michael McClure has written, "The most rewarding view of an organism, and of organically complex works of art, is that which is comprised of several equally valid views." This is what Spit in the Ocean does for Kesey. Though the dominant note is eulogy, the many different perspectives on Kesey's life and work combine into an appealing portrait of an amazing individual and a unique artist.
Kesey's Jail Journal and Spit in the Ocean #7 round out the Kesey canon, at least for now. According to Sterling Lord, there is a "voluminous collection of Kesey manuscripts and materials" housed in the Special Collections department of the University of Oregon Library. And judging by letters to Neal Cassady and Jerry Garcia included in Jail Journal, a book of Kesey correspondence seems a natural.
Regarded from a purely literary standpoint, Kesey's work is remarkable, but a bit disappointing. It's funny to say of a writer who wrote two great novels before he was 30, but Kesey's late novels--Sailor Song (1992) and Last Go-Round -(1994)--showed promise. It seemed that he might be writing his way toward another great book.
But a fair judgement of Ken Kesey involves much more than just his books. He was a new kind of 20th century artist. His canvas was the cultural-political landscape of North America and he sought to transform it radically, permanently and, yes, psychedelically. Dreamer, visionary, utopian, revolutionary--and not the only one--he often said that he had failed, that his team "lost the big game." It is possible to see how he came to that conclusion--in retrospect, his sights were set almost impossibly high--but it does not diminish the things he did achieve as a performance artist on a grand scale. When asked what his greatest work was, Kesey would always say, "The bus." Perhaps most importantly, his life provides a model for how to live enthusiastically as an artist and at the same time do right by family and friends. An artist of many accomplishments and much acclaim, Kesey never let his life be ruled by ambition or fame.