[sixties-l] A Final Word From the Last Merry Prankster (fwd)

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Date: Sun Nov 18 2001 - 21:21:54 EST

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    Date: Sun, 18 Nov 2001 17:14:34 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: A Final Word From the Last Merry Prankster


      November 18 2001

            A Final Word From the Last Merry Prankster


      The Willamette Valley was still blanketed in a misty predawn darkness
      when the horrendous news hit an Oregon dairy farmer named Ken Kesey,
      author of such enduring fictional classics as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
      Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion": Suicidal terrorists had attacked
      the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 4,300 people.
      "Everything was so clear that day, so unencumbered by theories and
      opinions, by thought, even," the 66-year-old novelist e-mailed friends 10
      days after the tragedy. "It just was. All just newborn images, ripped
      fresh from that monstrous pair of thighs thrust smoking into the morning
      sunshine. All just amateur cameras allowing us to witness the developing
      drama in sweeping handheld seizures. All just muffled mikes recording
      murmured gasps." On that fateful day, Kesey--who died of liver cancer on
      Nov. 10 in Eugene, Ore.--was gripped by sadness but not by The Fear. For
      decades in his robust fiction, intrepid bus trips and renegade
      proclamations, he had warned of future disasters and the need to overcome
      them with bedrock courage and stoical perseverance, just like the 300,000
      sturdy pioneers who struggled along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.
      "Throughout the work of James Fenimore Cooper there is what I call the
      American Terror," Kesey told The Paris Review in 1994. "It's very
      important to our literature, and it's important to who we are: the terror
      of the Hurons out there, the terror of the bear, the avalanche, the
      tornado--whatever may be over the next horizon."

      Readers first encountered Kesey's vision of terror in his 1962 classic
      "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in which a modern psychiatric ward
      became a chilling metaphor for oppressive American society. The roguish,
      Randle Patrick McMurphy, is rewarded with a frontal lobotomy by the
      book's end. Defiance in the face of terror and unjust circumstances
      became a Kesey hallmark. His second novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion," is
      about a stubborn Oregon logging family, the Stampers. Their maxim--which
      appears as a central theme throughout the sprawling narrative--is: "Never
      give a inch!" The entire book is a gritty Pacific Northwest adaptation of
      Ralph Waldo Emerson's seminal essay "Self-Reliance." Kesey understood
      that rugged individualism is the prize attribute in a society dominated
      by nuclear weapons, Orwellian Groupthink and Public Opinion Polls.
      Following the success of "Sometimes a Great Notion," Kesey exploded on
      the consciousness of our culture when he threw an LSD party in San
      Francisco and saw half of America show up. Overnight he became an outlaw
      celebrity, "the last wagon master," as Larry McMurtry called him, for
      painting a 1939 International Harvester bus named "Furthur" in Day-Glo
      colors and traveling from California to New York with his happy cohorts,
      known as the Merry Pranksters. Their goal was to unsettle America with
      their goofy LSD-inspired antics.

      Lost in this semi-cartoonish portrayal--popularized by Tom Wolfe in his
      best-selling "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"--was the most important side
      of the real Kesey: the public moralist. Convinced that the
      military-industrial complex was menacing the survival of democracy, Kesey
      used his psychedelic bus to jar the mores of conventionality that blindly
      believed Lyndon Johnson's claim that we were winning the Vietnam War or
      DuPont Chemical Co.'s assurances that it wasn't polluting the Great
      Lakes. "What we hoped," Kesey later noted with apocalyptic brooding, "was
      that we could stop the coming end of the world."

      Although Kesey abandoned novel writing for 28 years following "Sometimes
      a Great Notion," he returned to the genre with the publication in 1992 of
      "Sailor Song," a futuristic saga of human survival that takes place in a
      flyspeck Alaskan fishing village called Kuinak. The lead character, Ike
      Sallas, is an Earth First!-type eco-radical straight out of the pages of
      an Edward Abbey novel. But it's really too late. Global warming (or The
      Effect) is slowly melting the polar caps and when Sallas is marooned in
      an inflatable motorboat during a storm's ferocious peak, a direct result
      of The Effect, he lounges back in the boat's bottom and lets it run into
      the strong wind. "Might as well try to get comfortable," Sallas says.
      "You never know how long the End of the World is liable to take."

      Kesey's exploration of global disaster was explored even further in his
      play "Twister: A Ritual Reality in Four Quarters," premiered in 1993
      following a Grateful Dead concert in Eugene. The play----in which Kesey
      played the main character--is structured around the characters from Frank
      Baum's "The Wizard of Oz," all of whom are confronted with third
      millennium crises: The Hungry Wind, The Lonely Virus and The Restless
      Earth. Baum's memorable characters are hammered with inconveniences such
      as tornadoes, plagues and earthquakes--all of which Kesey insisted were
      increasing in both frequency and velocity.

      Given his penchant for contemplating the unexpected, Kesey's e-mail
      reaction to the absurd terrorist attacks of September is worth
      considering. His first inclination was to conjure up a distant historical
      analogy. "Well, I can remember Pearl Harbor," Kesey wrote. "I was only
      six but that memory is forever smashed into my memory like a bomb into a
      metal deck. Hate for the Japanese nation still smolders occasionally from
      the hole. This 9-11 nastiness is different. There is no nation to blame.
      There are no diving Zeros, no island grabbing armies, no seas filled with
      battleships and carriers. Just a couple dozen batty guys with box knives
      and absolute purpose. Dead now. Vaporized."

      But when it came to retaliating against the Taliban for the heinous
      crimes, Kesey turned pacifist. He had been staunchly against the Persian
      Gulf War and was in full dissent mode when it came to another U.S. war in
      the Middle East. His literary explorations in human nature had convinced
      him that an eye for an eye philosophy was bankrupt. "Of course we want
      their leaders," Kesey wrote, "but I'll be damned if I can see how we're
      gonna get those leaders by deploying our aircraft carriers and launching
      our mighty air power so we can begin bombing the crippled orphans in the
      rocky, leafless, already bombed-out rubble of Afghanistan." And while 90%
      of the American people--including me--thought President George W. Bush
      delivered a superb address to the joint session of Congress on Sept. 20,
      Kesey, watching from his living room in Pleasant Hill, Ore., shook his
      head in weary-eyed disgust. "Bush has just finished his big talk to
      Congress and the men in suits are telling us what the men in uniforms are
      going to do to the men in turbans if they don't turn over the men in
      hiding," he lamented. "The talk was planned to prepare us for war. It's
      going to get messy, everybody ruefully concedes. Nothing will ever be the
      same, everybody eventually declares. Then why does it all sound so
      familiar? So cozy and comfortable? Was it the row after row of dark blue
      suits, broken only by grim clusters of high-ranking uniforms all
      drizzling ribbons and medals? If everything has changed (as we all knew
      that it had on that first day) why does it all wear the same old outfits
      and say the same old words?"

      Such sentiments were considered unpatriotic heresy in the early days of
      the war on terrorism. It was a time to proclaim "United We Stand," pin an
      American flag on your lapel and salute the commander in chief. Celebrity
      artists appeared on TV telethons to raise money for the victims of the
      attacks while liberals of every stripe swallowed hard and admitted that
      President Bush had exceeded their low expectations. But Kesey, like some
      stubborn old-growth redwood tree, refused to join their ranks. He was by
      trade and temperament a dissenter in time of war, always poised on the
      precipice of the abyss, thumbing his nose at authority and championing
      the individual: underdog over big government.

      For Kesey--the iconoclastic artist--lived by a simple motto he clung to
      with the tenacity of a pit bull. The job of the writer, he said, is to
      kiss up to no one, "no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and
      Douglas Brinkley, a contributing writer to Book Review, is director of
      the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at
      the University of New Orleans. He is currently writing a biography of
      Jack Kerouac.

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