Ken Kesey Essay - Kesey, Ken (Vol. 3)

Kesey, Ken (Vol. 3)

Kesey, Ken 1935–

Kesey, an American writer best known for the black humor of his novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, has now published Kesey's Garage Sale. The comic book adventures of Kesey and "The Merry Pranksters" are the subject of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] McMurphy gives the men not only self-confidence and a renewed sense of virility, but also what Kesey sees as man's only weapon against the waste land—laughter. There has been no laughter in the asylum; McMurphy notices that immediately and comments, "when you lose your laugh you lose your footing."… In effect, he teaches the men to be black humorists, and it is the vision and the balance of black humor that Kesey attempts to employ as a stay against the waste land. To Kesey, being human and having control means being able to laugh, for the rational ordered world has done us in, and only an insurgence of energy from the irrational can break through the fear and sterility that have, paradoxically, made the world go mad. It is ultimately their laughter that the men cram down the Big Nurse's maw in their brief moment of victory….

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a modern fable pitting a fabulous kind of good against a fabulous kind of evil and making use of many of the traditional devices of American romance…. For example: it emphasizes plot and action (not character), and it employs myth, allegory, and symbol. There are equally obvious points of contact between the themes of this book and traditional American themes: for example, the rebellion against old orders and old hierarchies, and the need for communal effort in the face of an alien and overwhelmingly negative force…. It does not return to the past, gaze toward the future, or travel to the unknown to get its "romance" setting. The setting is the static institution which sums up both the preoccupation of our age with the mystery of power, and the substitution of an image of the waste land for the image of a journey between Eden and Utopia. It is shot through with the vitality of its use of the here and the now. We are constantly shocked into discovering how the book is really tied to the recognizable, not to the distant or strange, but to our very own—to technology we know of, to clichés we use, to an atmosphere possible only in the atomic tension of our times. Just as no one can confidently say who is mad and who is not in Kesey's novel, no one can say in what sense his story is real and in what sense it is fiction. The narrator sounds a note that echoes everywhere in the sixties: "You think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen."… The romance elements in the book are not based on devices that whisk us away to some "theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel," and then whisk us back fueled up with truth. We suspect with horror that what we are seeing very possibly is our highway of ordinary travel, fantastic as it may seem.

Raymond M. Olderman, "The Grail Knight Arrives," in his Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 35-51.

Until I came across ["Kesey's Garage Sale"], I'm afraid I knew Ken Kesey only through Tom Wolfe's fine study, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," and he seemed to me one of that burgeoning band of American writers who are their own most perfect work of art….

"Kesey's Garage Sale" is my first taste of the man's written work. Arthur Miller, who wrote the solemn, if necessarily uneasy, introduction, immediately sets out to disarm critics. "This is, of course, a chaotic volume," he writes, "and cynics will easily dispose of it as a transparent attempt to capitalize on twice-published material, plus stuff lying at the bottom of the drawer. Or maybe it is just Kesey offering his broad back for his friends, some alive and some dead, to ride on into the public eye."

But my own problem with this catch-all collection is not that some of the material was twice published but rather astonishment that most of it, largely detritus, was published in the first place. The more I see of the counter-culture, the more it seems to me an inverted Rotary, with its own tiresome rituals, glad-handers, oafs and uniforms…. And filling something like Billy Graham's office in the inverted Rotary we have Ken Kesey, betting not on prayer and hard work, but chemistry (LSD-25) and idleness to save souls.

Recipes, recipes.

The largest chunk of "Kesey's Garage Sale" is given over to a sprawling, occasionally charming, more often inchoate, screenplay, "Over the Border," starring Kesey and the Pranksters, thinly disguised as Devlin Deboree and the Animal Friends, on the lam in Mexico….

Another "Garage Sale" hot item, as the Intrepid Trippers have it, is comprised of excerpts from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with drawings by Paul Foster. There is also a boorish, frenetic letter from Neal Cassady, an embarrassing attempt at the blues by Allen Ginsberg, and two interviews with Kesey, from which the author manages to soar sympathetically above his own fuzzy codswallop….

But the section of "Garage Sale" that I found most absorbing was "The Last Supplement," which was originally published in "The Whole Earth Catalog." Here Kesey lists "Tools From My Chest." They include the Bible, the I Ching, Dawgs, Martin Buber, Faulkner, the Beatles, grass, Cleaver, Pogo, flowers and William Burroughs….

Not every child raised on Wheaties grows up a champion; neither does every tripper return with "Kubla Khan." Some merely check in with "Over the Border." Engaging, and redeemed by humor here and there, but no more than a trifle.

Mordecai Richler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 7, 1973, pp. 6-7.

Kesey's title [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] comes from a "Children's folk rhyme"; two lines are cited in the epigraph: "… one flew east, one flew west, / One flew over the cuckoo's nest." Since the book deals with the inmates of a mental institution, it would seem that "cuckoo's nest" is an easily understood metaphor for the setting. In a larger context, however, two other ideas give a deeper meaning to the title.

The first deals with the cuckoo. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of this bird is that it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds who then raise the cuckoo's off-spring as their own. The significance here is that there is no such thing as a cuckoo's "nest." Hence, Kesey's title might mean, "One tries one accepted direction, one tries another accepted direction, and one more tries a way so different that it is out of the normal frame of reference." Certainly, this is what happens in the institution, as the various inmates—Harding, Chief Bromden, Billy Bibbit—are subjected to Big Nurse's "therapy" and further "treatment" at the Shock Shop.

The second idea is seen when one considers the entire nursery rhyme. The version in William S. and Ceil Baring-Gould's The Annotated Mother-Goose … is designated a "counting rhyme": "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, / All good children go to heaven, / Some fly east, / Some fly west, / Some fly over the cuckoo's nest."

The significant idea here is directly related to the hero of Kesey's novel, McMurphy, a "good" man, who flies "over the cuckoo's nest" in that he is not really insane. McMurphy's death, after his having been reduced to an infantile state by lobotomy, assures his entry into a "heaven" in which Big Nurse will not be able to gloat over her conquest of him at the sacrifice of his personality.

William S. Doxey, in The Explicator, December, 1973, p. 16.

The "energy crisis," for the majority of Americans, is front-page news and means something quite literal: less fuel means less heat, light and mobility. For a minority of Americans, those who are usually described as the counter-culture, the "energy crisis" means something more allegorical: this millennium is running out of fuel.

Because this allegorical perspective is held by a minority, its news appears on the back pages (the arrival of the comet Kohoutek) or is never reported at all (the opinion of many who have received ominous hexagrams from the I Ching). Information for the back pagers is hard to find in news weeklies, appearing more often in little-known or erratic and ephemeral publications like The Realist or Rallying Point.

The differences between the front-pagers and the back-pagers create serious misunderstandings, and one of these is that the brilliant and hierophantic Kesey's Garage Sale has been short-changed by the reviewers. Kesey's new book wasn't written only for the back-pagers but it lacks the dramatic popularity of Carlos Castaneda's works that deliberately intend to make a minority report accessible to the front-page majority.

But the fact that the majority and minority viewpoints are coming closer together is reflected in New York publishers' decisions to republish (e.g., Alicia Bay Laurel's Living on the Earth) or distribute (e.g., The Last Whole Earth Catalog) works usually accessible only to the few. Viking has done this with Kesey's Garage Sale. The time is ripe.

The back-page consciousness is becoming more prevalent, and Kesey wouldn't have it any other way….

In his fiction Kesey is a teacher in one or another persona—Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In this book he speaks like another creator of a Massenpsychologie—Socrates, a moral, peripatetic teacher. But his addresses to the PTA may be as difficult to understand as the news from the front that, in these days of media immediacy, plops the current war into our laps undigested. At least Socrates had an obliging Plato to filter himself through.

But Kesey lives at the front of cultural change and is more of a lightning rod than a seismograph. His motto has been "Further," and he knew the fastest man alive, perhaps the counter-culture's only saint—Neal Cassady who died like the rock-drilling John Henry racing the celestial train of time. And so Kesey's Garage Sale is a retrospective of Kesey's work on the frontiers that becomes easier to understand as we approach the land he has trailblazed….

For [Kesey] classical comparisons of the earnestness-that-has-gone-by-other-names assures that back page news will remain in the back pages. He has the American appetite for vulgarization that speaks of Johnny Appleseed instead of John the Baptist, or of the Apocalypse in Stan Lee's comicbook version….

[Arthur] Miller's introduction means to head off the confusion that results from combining the back-pager's allegorical perspective with the front-pager's plain speaking. Kesey himself means to do that, moving as he does from the metaphorical density of the dialogues in "Over the Border" to a form much more compatible with his intentions. The book concludes with vulgarized truth in the form of a fable.

Jerry Griswold, "Plain-Speaking Allegory," in Nation, February 23, 1974, pp. 249-50.