---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 20 Nov 2001 13:35:06 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Don't forget to remember Ken Kesey
Don't forget to remember Ken Kesey
By Alex Beam, 11/20/2001
In death as in life, timing is everything. Ken Kesey died on a Saturday,
during a shooting war. Few noticed.
Of course, he was memorialized, most notably in a long, appreciative
obituary by New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt that ran on
Page 47 of the paper's first section. Just one week earlier, death
spotters had noted with sadness the obituary of Lehmann-Haupt's brother
Sandy, who was a member of Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters. Sandy had
been a key source for Tom Wolfe's perhaps too definitive portrait of
Kesey's LSD-laced frivolities, the 1968 book ''The Electric Kool-Aid
Did we just lose something more precious than we realized? This same
thing happened nine years ago, when writer Richard Yates slipped away
with little notice in either the Boston or the New York papers. His
memorial service turned out to be a Gathering of the Clan, of writers and
editors who worked on great books in the long-ago 1950s and 1960s. An
excellent, loving essay by Stewart O'Nan in the Boston Review some time
later reminded the few people who cared that Yates - whose work is now
back in print - was a great struggler, and a very good writer.
Reputation mongering is a mug's game. And yet ... Couldn't one make the
case that Kesey, with not one but two Great American Novels under his
belt - ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' and ''Sometimes a Great
Notion'' - merited much more than a hasty see-ya-Ken-and-now-back-to-
Admiral Stufflebeem? How do you measure reputation? In prizes? Units
sold? Books on the curriculum? Penetrating readers' hearts and minds?
I can't think of a category where Kesey comes in second to any writer
gracing the shelves today.
Baggage? Sure, I've got some baggage. Earlier this year, my teenage son
dragged me down to New York to see Gary Sinise in the Broadway revival of
''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'' Sinise and the Steppenwolf Theater
Company behind him were fine, but the play clobbered me over the head,
again and again. What a simple story; how smartly told. Surely the
incarceration and emasculation of Randle P. McMurphy is one of the great
American plots of the late 20th century.
And, of course, Kesey feeds into my West Coast Thing. (Californianism is
passed through the mother, and my mom was born in Oakland.)
A few years ago, I spent many a languid hour bicycling the perimeter of
the Stanford golf course, dreaming not of Tiger Woods, who had recently
left campus, but of the great economist Thorstein Veblen, who kept a
mistress nearby, and of Kesey. The University of Oregon championship
wrestler wrote both ''Cuckoo's Nest'' and ''Great Notion'' in the Perry
Lane enclave at Stanford, where he had a graduate writing fellowship.
Note to literary tourists: Veblen's shag pad has been plowed under, and
local burghers have renamed Perry Lane ''Perry Avenue'' to disassociate
themselves from the acid testers. Kesey's famous bungalow is no more.
On the work front, there was little to celebrate in Kesey's life after
the 1964 publication of ''Great Notion.'' The titles on the spines of the
Kesey books at my local library were unknown to me: ''Demon Box,'' a
collection of essays; a children's book; the 1992 novel ''Sailor Song'';
''Pot Stories for the Soul.'' Forgettable stuff. In interviews, Kesey
complained how hard it was to recapture the creative energy of his early
career. On the Internet, you can download interviews, and pictures of him
dressed in outlandish costumes, prancing and Prankstering for the camera,
not making a terrific amount of sense.
There is certainly no evidence that Kesey saw his own life, interrupted
at age 66, as a cautionary tale. (Isn't it curious how many heavy drug
users - Jerry Garcia, Kesey - have died at relatively young ages? Is it
possible those chemicals were ... bad for you?) He spent the last 30
years of his life raising four children on his father's farm in Oregon,
serving on the local school board, and occasionally taking psychedelic
drugs. ''In later years, he insisted that he had always been a family man
with strong ties to the community,'' Lehmann-Haupt wrote, with a
discernible degree of skepticism.
One would have wished more from him, and more for us. He made his bed and
now he is lying in it, prematurely, alas.
Alex Beam's e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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