By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times
Ken Kesey, the novelist famous for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" who became a prophet of the psychedelic era when he led an LSD-fueled band of free spirits on a cross-country bus trip in the early 1960s, died Saturday at a hospital in Eugene, Ore. He was 66.
His death came two weeks after cancer surgery to remove nearly half of his liver.
Kesey found resounding critical acclaim with "Cuckoo’s Nest," a darkly humorous parable set in a mental hospital. Published in 1962, his first novel resonated with a generation weary of the conformist 1950s and receptive to its message about the dangers to individual freedom and expression.
He also was the leader of the Merry Pranksters, who commanded a 1939 school bus painted in Day-Glo hues to spread their love of hallucinogenics and let-it-be attitude. Their exploits were celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which became an underground classic soon after its 1968 publication. Kesey emerged as a countercultural folk hero.
"He was very definitely the person who set the tone of the entire psychedelic or hippie movement," Wolfe said Saturday by phone from Philadelphia. "Ken had this expression: ‘It’s time to move off dead center.’ … A whole generation moved off dead center, a whole lot of things changed, from the breakdown in the walls of formality between teachers and students to the use of hallucinogenic drugs."
Together with Timothy Leary, another guru of the ’60s, Kesey was a major figure in "a general throwing aside of constraints, which made a tremendous difference in American society," Wolfe said.
Kesey’s second and most successful novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion," followed closely behind "Cuckoo’s Nest," in 1964. Over the next three decades, he would write only one more major novel, "Sailor Song," in 1992.
He seemed to relish confounding conventional expectations, abandoning writing for long stretches while he pursued other interests — performing with the Grateful Dead, giving readings of his children’s stories, and making videos out of the miles of film he and other Pranksters shot during what they came to call the Intrepid Trip.
"He was a very kinetic individual," said novelist Larry McMurtry, who studied writing with Kesey at Stanford University in the late 1950s. "It is as a writer that I think of Ken. (But) he had something of the farmer in him, something of the director in him. And the pranksters on the bus putting on hats and brightening up the lives of people in many communities — it seemed to please him."
"Kesey was the trickster par excellence," said Robert Faggen, an associate professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College, who wrote the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of "Cuckoo’s Nest" to be published by Viking in January. "He was always challenging and subverting those around him, challenging the masquerade of settled life."
But there was a common strand to his writing, which he once described this way.
"There’s a snake in the grass. Sometimes it’s the government. Sometimes it’s evil spirits. Sometimes it’s some part of yourself," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "But there’s an evil force and it attacks you (where) you are most vulnerable."
Art, he believed, was the opposition force and held the possibility of salvation. "That’s what ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ is about. That’s what ‘Great Notion’ is about: the small trying to stand up against a great force. But that force is getting stronger."
Kesey came to be seen as a bridge between the Beats of the 1950s and the hippies who came after. It was an honor he viewed with typical humor.
"To be the bridge from the beatniks to the hippies shows that we don’t exist in either world. We lie in the cracks between them. We think of ourselves as crackers," he told the Times-Union of Albany, N.Y. earlier this year.
He is survived by wife, Faye; a son, Zane; daughters Shannon Smith and Sunshine Kesey; his mother, Geneva Jolley; a brother, Chuck; three grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews.