By Kevin S. Giles
Who remembers Ken Kesey?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Sometimes a Great Notion? Last Go Round?
How about the Merry Pranksters and “Further,” their crazy psychedelic bus, in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?
Kesey was a gifted but troubled writer — do we know of any other? — who thought of himself as a literary link between the Beat writers of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. He published both Cuckoo’s Nest and Great Notion, his two best-known works, between those eras. Kesey’s reputation as a cult figure soared after Tom Wolfe profiled him in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book about Kesey’s association with a band of roving hippies known as the Merry Pranksters and his experiments with LSD and other psychedelic drugs.
I first read Kesey while attending the University of Montana in Missoula. I found Sometimes a Great Notion at the “Freddy’s Feed and Read” hippie bookstore a few blocks from campus. Kesey, of lumberjack girth himself, wrote an epic novel about an Oregon logging family that defied a labor strike. Some 600 pages of tiny print later, I found myself at the end, sorry to say goodbye to the Stampers and Kesey’s raw portrayal of a family as much in conflict with each other as the world around them.
Cuckoo’s Nest came later, when I was living in Australia. I had seen the movie by then. I found the book a fair taste of the movie, or vice versa, like a bite from a tart apple compares with a forkful of sugared apple pie. The book appealed to both tastes, in a way good fiction falls over the tongue as the pages turn, and I savored it all. The movie was darn good, too. It won all five top Oscars, after all. Cuckoo’s Nest, which deeply explores themes of power, abuse, dignity and relentless hope, took us on a journey into the psychobabble of a psych ward, where he leaves it to our collective imagination to decide who’s more insane — the inmates or their keepers.
Some years later, in North Dakota, a colleague introduced me to Kesey’s Last Go Round. Kesey and his collaborator, Ken Babb, documented the last true Old West rodeo in Oregon. The book was also an exclamation point for Kesey’s literary life. He died soon after, leaving a string of works that resembled his younger years in their extent of experimentation.
My reading of Kesey, and about Kesey, came in the midst of my exploration of several writers described as “New Journalists” because of their subjective reporting style: Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, for a few. This was before I had read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and before I understood how much some authors (like Capote) would bend the truth to tell a real-life story that read more like, well, fiction. Kesey, true to the literary environment around him, wrote this in Cuckoo’s Nest: “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.” And in another instance said this: “To hell with facts! We need stories!”
Capote’s treatment of the murder of four members of a Kansas farm family in a home robbery that netted $40 was influential in my story-telling in Jerry’s Riot, the factual account of the 1959 Montana prison riot. Kesey’s raw poignant style had a hand in it too. It’s quite possible to build a personal story around dry facts, but it’s also a known truth that most readers favor a good story, well told, over painstaking documentation. Such was the case with In Cold Blood, which greatly amplified insight into a 1959 crime that otherwise received minor press coverage. Capote’s reporting was so deep that he shaped an intended magazine article into a best-selling book. Suspicions ran deep that Capote made up much of the story but nobody could tell for sure. Allegations persist that he made up quotes and entire scenes to fit his story line. The book was an instant sensation when published in the mid-1960s, first in four parts in “New Yorker” magazine and then as a book.
Kesey never knew such commercial success. I doubt he cared about that. A year before his death in 2001, he reflected on writing Sometimes a Great Notion: “There are times when you are able to do stuff that is just right for your years and your experience, and I’ve always known that was the best I was going to be at writing.”
When writing Jerry’s Riot I paid close attention to famous writers and how they wrote. Among the nonfiction “event” books I read was the fine Circus Fire by Steward O’Nan that told of the horrific Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey tent fire in 1944. His book’s gripping detail, arresting in its description, inspired some of the passages in my book. Any writer’s work, free of others’ influence if it’s worth anything at all, nonetheless grows from all we’ve read and admired. I’ve often admired Kesey. If I could talk with him today, he’d probably shrug and say he did his best, and like many writers he might wonder if anybody remembered what he wrote. I did. The collection of Kesey’s books on my shelf speaks to that.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author who writes about his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)