The Day Ken Kesey Disappeared

The Village Voice, perhaps in an effort to figure out what the hell happened to the New Journalism it pioneered, trawls through its archives every day and pulls out an entertaining artifact or two. Today’s entry comes from the May 12, 1966 issue of the paper, which includes a fun piece on the disappearance of Ken Kesey, who skipped California for Mexico to avoid arrest on drug charges, hamfistedly faking his death in the process. At that point Kesey’s career had shifted; his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, was met with middling reviews, but he was busier with the Merry Pranksters. The Voice story captures the transformation from establishment novelist to goddam hippie in three quick paragraphs:

It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published Kesey’s first novel in 1962. “One Flew Over” was well received. Critics found in the plight of a ward of mental patients a parable of the whole human condition. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 performances.

With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cassidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.

“Sometimes a Great Notion,” published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — unable, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men…can get together and make a whole life.” Newsweek called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”

By the end of the Voice story, Kesey was still on the lam, but he was only able to avoid the authorities for eight months. In 1968 he served five months for marijuana possession in the San Mateo County Jail, an experience he documented in a posthumous book, 2003’s Kesey’s Jail Journal. Apparently you can purchase a copy direct from Kesey’s son Zane.

Ken Kesey’s Screenplay Suit

Portland, Ore., alt-weekly Willamette Week has an extensive story about the legal squabbling over Last Go Round, a screenplay about an Oregon rodeo written by Ken Kesey. Kesey was commissioned to write the script in 1983 by MiSchelle McMindes and Mike Hagen, who had done some research into the event; the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author delivered a manuscript, but the question of who owns the rights to it has been much argued-over and deposed-over in the years since.

Stories about dead writers (Kesey died in 2001) and estate battles are rarely very engaging. But the story does reveal some of the reasons why Kesey soured on writing fiction:

“Kesey abandoned prose as ‘archaic’ and set off to make The Movie,” says Mark Christensen, a Los Angeles writer and former WW staffer who’s completing a study of Kesey, Timothy Leary and other ’60s narcotics gurus titled Acid Christ for Schaffner Press. “He bought into the dream, which is the old cliché of Hollywood: What I really want to do is direct. In other words, he wanted into the movie business! This was in the wave of all that French New Wave shit, where people literally believed the novel was dead, and cinema was going to be the new medium. And Kesey bought that dream.”

The story also includes video of a feature by Oregon Public Broadcasting that captures Kesey in 2001 expounding on visual arts at the expense of more writerly ones: “So much of the writer’s effort has gone into decorating the place—setting the scene, getting the lighting just right, putting the sofa there so it frames that one area of the room,” he says at one point. “A lot of what we think of as storytelling is just window dressing.” Video here: