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|In Memoriam. Ken Kesey: B: September 17, 1935 -- D: November 10, 2001 Godspeed.|
|Ken Kesey: Final
by Larry Leonard (Photos from keseypics at Intreped Trips)
The weather rolls from West to
LL, at the cabin on the east fork, 11/10/01
him, we were alone. He did not like to do that with the
A famous man is not safe in the company of just one journalist.
The people in biographical, historical and satirical books are real people. The people in a novel, even when based on actual human beings, are symbolic people. All novels are symbolic in nature, and, at their deepest level, about the author.
Harry Lenhart, now working the business
the Portland Tribune, was in those days the editor of Oregon
He sent me to Springfield to get the essence of the great author in a
titled Ken Kesey at Midpassage. When he read what I wrote
about the great author, he said it was not definitive.
Before I interviewed him, I attended a meeting where he was present. I recall describing it as like being on the far side of a black hole. Everything in the universe was shooting out in my direction. Then I went to meet with him. Here's some of the text from the 1982 article.
Late February. It has rained more this winter than just
any time in Oregon history. Today, even when it isn't raining, it
feels as if it is. Something like the great humidity of the
but ice cold and clammy. The country around Kesey's farm is flat
as a miter board. There are no high spots of land -- just low and
a little lower
A giant, brightly colored macaw sits on a
a slab of what looks like Myrtlewood. The bird is almost always
that perch on that table, night and day, rain, snow, sleet and
It has lived there through five Oregon winters. There is no
It can come and go as it pleases. But it sits there under the
branches of a deciduous tree in the icy rain, a stream of water
from its huge beak, staring at the visitor
Kesey's studio is a shed made of half-round,
Half of it is dark and empty, an unused storage area. The working
end has a space heater, some ratty cabinets and old chairs, a few
boxes, several lamps and a desk. On the desk are some reference
Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the later sea stories of Ernest
a portable radio, an odd, beat-up leather briefcase and Kesey's
red handkerchief. It has been a long, wet, miserable winter.
"I've got piles and piles of stuff I've
in the demon box," Kesey is saying, staring at a battered
box sitting in a dark cubbyhole in a beat-up cabinet.
His closest friend, Ken Babbs, says the question doesn't make sense. Kesey has that demon box full of stuff. It contains both published and unpublished, finished and unfinished pieces. Ideas that stretch from Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) to today. It contains wonderful allegories like the Rolling Stone article he did on the death of John Lennon, the Esquire piece about Abdul and Ebenezer, a bull and cow he owns; the themes covered in his strange revolutionary periodical, Spit in the Ocean, miles of rambling, sarcastic, inventive, evasive, perceptive commentary to a googolplex of questions during an infinite number of interviews, all of which he hated because he "doesn't do well in one-on-one interviews..." and God knows what else that he has written or said. Babbs insists it is a body of work. Demon Box, aside from being an actual physical repository, also is apparently the working title for a rambling novel Kesey has been working on for some time.
There was one recent book, Garage Sale, a large, scrapbook-like work in content and size, an existential, cartoony collage of stuff from the demon box that Kesey must have thought said something important. In the introduction, written in 1973 by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Arthur Miller, the book is described as chaotic, a vehicle, cynics would say, for credibility-by-association for Kesey's friends, or perhaps something tossed off to generate income But Miller sees it, for all its weaknesses as a kind of modern American revolutionary history..
From there, the article went into the
which I am not transcribing here. Perhaps one day, I shall, but
now. On that day his brain was floating across the universe like
an albatross soaring on the winds of space. He talked of a sea
a Kwakiutl rock opera, the Sixties revolution and the New Man he
would be its legacy. He talked of wax and strings and sailing
The dark room in the end of the wooden shed became many places and many
I know an author who has written sixty books. He lives in Portland, and you have probably never heard his name. Having written a small, very good novel that went nowhere, I envy Kesey's luck, or skill, or both, at getting attention for himself, and so his work. In the beginning, P.T. Barnum-like, he painted a bus strange colors, named it "Further," and went on a road trip to introduce himself to the world. He grabbed hold of the emerging culture from which we all suffer to this day, and made himself an icon in its pantheon. That marketing genius created the name familiarity that allowed his literary genius to fulfill all of its possibilities.
Recently, I interviewed science fiction legend, Ray Bradbury, then did a piece for this magazine. Kesey read the piece, and sent the following email.
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