November 9, 2001
12:38 PM   Subscribe

Author Ken Kesey in critical condition in Eugene. . .He's been sort of a local celeb around here. Cuckoo's Nest is still one of the major works of the 20th Century even though he never wrote anything approaching it. I hope that he survives to write more and is seen again cruising in his Caddy convertible.
posted by Danf (22 comments total)
A great writer, great bookseller, great person. I hope he lives forever.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:46 PM on November 9, 2001

I reread Cuckoo's Nest a few years ago after reading it once when I was in my teens. What I found stunning the second time was his complete, overarching sexism. Women in that book are either cold, emasculating harridans or ineffectual, willing orifices. Hell, a big part of the climax (sigh) of the book is McMurphy's ripping off Ratched's blouse to expose her enormous breasts. She ends the book pallid and powerless after the act.

Not that I want the guy dead. But I think that this "major work" is devastatingly diminished by this kind of rot.
posted by Skot at 12:51 PM on November 9, 2001

Cuckoo's Nest is his best known, thanks to Michael Douglass and Jack Nicholson (not to mention a recent stage version with Gary Sinise), but if we're talking about his "masterpiece," let's not forget Sometimes a Great Notion -- an epic tale of an outsider family in the north woods.

Sometimes I sleep in the country.
Sometimes I sleep in the town.
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.
Irene, good night.
-- Ledbelly

The movie version was a bit quirky but the book was a gem.
posted by fpatrick at 1:08 PM on November 9, 2001

And writing apart, he has a place in our common history. This is sad to hear.
posted by y2karl at 1:17 PM on November 9, 2001

From the article: but he may be better known as one of the Merry Pranksters, whose cross-country adventures in a painted bus they called Farther were chronicled in Tom Wolfe's book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

The bus was actually called Further, which is more accurately what Kesey et al always seemed to be about . . .

Hope he gets better.
posted by donovan at 1:34 PM on November 9, 2001

I met Kesey very briefly while in college, about 10 years ago. I remember thinking, "God, what an asshole!" But he was an asshole in a good way--not a Tom Clancy, arrogant son-of-a-bitch kind of way, but more a Bob Dylan, this is who I am and I'm not going to put on any airs kind of way. Actually, I guess it's a Randle P. McMurphy kind of way.

Come to think of it, that may well tie in to Skot's point about his sexism. One of the things that made Cuckoo's Nest so revolutionary was its bluntness, its honesty. McMurphy is a grade A prick, but he doesn't pretend to be anything else. Kesey struck me the same way (not nearly to the extent that McMurphy does, but similar). I wouldn't dream of treating women the way McMurphy does--or write about them the way Kesey did--but you have to admire his willingness to cut through the bullshit. To show you who he is, (big, pus-filled, festering) warts and all.
posted by jpoulos at 1:42 PM on November 9, 2001

Keysey had a room at a rave I attended a couple of years ago at the Bill Graham Civic in San Francisco. The whole room was dark except for black lights, the walls were covered with glowing paint and things that glowed (I honestly don't know what they were) were hanging from the ceiling. About 100 people were lying and sitting on the floor while Kesey sat a little above them on a platform. He had a white robe and a bunch of stuff on the platform with him...all I remember was weird shit and a tv. Behind him was a screen showing changing colored liquid. He was just sitting there with all these tripping teenages and twenty-somethings, taking them on a trip with him. I walked in and realized it wasn't the trip I wanted to be on ("Whoa...too much!!!!") and walked out and into the drum room. But I remember thinking, "that guy ROCKS." He just made those people's night. Here's this old fart in a white toga still understanding kids 50 years younger. Cool.
posted by aacheson at 1:52 PM on November 9, 2001

I remember reading Cuckoo's Nest for the first time when I was 15 and thinking that R.P. McMurphy was the literary character I would most want to be like(minus the lobotomy, just to pre-empt the smartasses out there). A no-bullshit, be yourself, damn the naysayers of every political and social stripe, screw politeness true badass. Although as a human being, I've become more pragmatic and cautious and PC than I'd like to be over the years, my opinion of McMurphy and the man who created him has never changed.
I remember reading a portrait of Kesey in Ed McClanahan's book "Famous People I Have Known" in which Kesey, attending some radical-chic nitwit's fundraising dinner for the Black Panthers, effortlessly(sp?) deflates every pretention in the room. I realized that R.P. McMurphy was a lot like the man who invented him.
So, godspeed, Mr. Kesey and be well. But a part of me thinks that he maybe too much of a true man and true American(I can feel the flames coming already) to live in the shallow compromised world we now occupy.
posted by jonmc at 3:29 PM on November 9, 2001

I was lucky enough to see Kesey and Babbs give one of their infamous lectures. It was, kids, an advert for what drugs can do to destroy great brains (or should that be what brains can do to destroy great drugs...?) Overlong, rambling, disorganised, somewhat pointless and certainly obnoxious and self-serving. But nevertheless good fun, and I'm glad to say I've stood in the same room as the great men.
posted by skylar at 4:41 PM on November 9, 2001

Ken Kesey R.I.P.
posted by liam at 9:58 AM on November 10, 2001

Novelist, 60s Icon Ken Kesey Dies (via Scripting News)
posted by dgeiser13 at 10:08 AM on November 10, 2001

His son was quoted as saying "We'd never give it up".

It's sitting in his backyard with weeds and stuff all around it.

The Smithsonian asked about it years ago but Ken Kesey turned them down.
posted by BarneyFifesBullet at 2:02 PM on November 10, 2001

From the obit: Kesey considered pranks part of his art, and in 1990 took a poke at the Smithsonian Institution by announcing he would drive his old psychedelic bus to Washington, to give it to the nation. The museum recognized the bus as a new one, with no particular history, and rejected the gift.
posted by darukaru at 2:06 PM on November 10, 2001

"Sometimes a Great Notion," widely considered Kesey's greatest book...

posted by lbergstr at 2:10 PM on November 10, 2001

Like the appreciation I just heard on NPR, the New York Times obit is mostly about Kesey's drug use and his first novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Ultimately, Kesey will be remembered for writing one of the greatest novels in American literature, "Sometimes a Great Notion." It's my favorite novel. I think the critics and literature professors will come around to my way of thinking someday and Kesey will be remembered as the great novelist that he was. The NYT obit brushes off "Notion," just as Herman Melville's obiturists brushed off "Moby Dick" in favor of Melville's first two novels, "Typee" and "Omoo." Melville's obituary writers also spilled a lot of ink dwelling on Melville's private life -- did he really bang a lot of cuties in Tahiti? -- just as Kesey's obiturists dwell on his LSD use 40 years ago. Read "Sometimes a Great Notion" and prepare to be amazed and delighted.
posted by Holden at 3:26 PM on November 10, 2001

I've read "Sometimes a Great Notion" and thought it was a fairly unexceptional novel, very much in line with other "literary bestellers" of its time. But that was a long time ago and I was pretty callow then. What do you find so remarkable, Holden?
posted by rodii at 3:34 PM on November 10, 2001

re: BarneyFifesBullet and my comments above: these were in reference to a now-deleted thread which posed the question 'what'll they do with Kesey's bus?' Just in case any late-comers are wondering about the non-sequitur.
posted by darukaru at 4:34 PM on November 10, 2001

Though I first encountered Kesey's vitality second-hand--through The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (if you only know Wolfe through his later books, this might surprise you)--growing up in the 60s/70s his influence was profound. Strangely enough, I just finished Cuckoo's Nest last week. I'd never read any of his stuff, or seen the Nicholson movie.

Re: the portrayal of women: the life-denying repression which was the book's main theme was embodied by a robotic and sinister martiarch, and there is an allegorical/caricature-like quality to most of the characters, male or female. I think the subtle, slowly constricting quality of repression in the USA has more of a female quality to it. It's definitely more of a boy's book though, very Oedipal. And until sex (and power) is better understood, men and women will remain caricatures to each other.
posted by aflakete at 4:50 PM on November 10, 2001

Rodii, what I find remarkable about "Notion" is -- well, everything, really. First of all, I'm a real sucker for books that describe exotic occupations, which partly explains why my other favorite novel is "Moby Dick." In "Sometimes a Great Notion," the occupation is logging.
The characterization in "Notion" is amazingly well-done. There's a huge cast of characters, and Kesey lets us enter the heads of many of them as he switches points of view and even narrators constantly, sometimes in mid-sentence. In one brief passage, the story is even told from the point of view of a dog that has been injured by a bear trap. He does this without being sentimental or silly.
One of the themes of the book is time -- what it is, how it affects our point of view, how we are influenced by past things that we don't even know about. Early in the book Vivian is trying to describe to Mr. Draeger why Hank is doing what he's doing, and she tells Draeger that you have to go back 200 years to understand Hank's actions. And she's right.
When Kesey died, I happened to be re-reading the book for the first time in 10 years. I was astonished to find that my reaction to the characters had changed enormously. Where before I had considered Leland to be a more sympathetic figure than Hank, I feel the opposite now. I changed, the book didn't, and this book has given me an insight into how I've changed in the last decade.
Finally, the mid-sentence and mid-paragraph switches in narrator, time, place and point of view are examples of transcendental writing. I don't know how Kesey did it. I write for a living, and I'm in awe of what Kesey did. There's no way I could do it.
posted by Holden at 2:21 AM on November 11, 2001

sorry to nitpick, but the bus was called Furthur, not Further or Farther.
posted by rorycberger at 7:02 PM on November 11, 2001

We've discussed the further/furthur question here before, inconclusively. "Farther," however, is right out.
posted by rodii at 8:55 PM on November 11, 2001

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