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Kesey & Co. : The gregarious author is back in the spotlight. His latest book is a joint venture with 13 of his students, but he's regaining his rhythm and his solo voice.

February 11, 1990|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EUGENE, Ore. — We've got him cornered.

Keeeeesssey! Ken Keeeeeeeeesssey! We want to talk to you.

For three decades or so, we, The Mainstream Media, have swarmed around Ken Kesey like cultural moths, whenever the hallucinogen-inspired, macho author's strobe-light brain stuttered to life.

Tom Wolfe squeezed the best journalistic juice from the trickster in "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." But that was back in 1968, when Kesey was still throwing flash powder on the flames of the so-called revolution by leading his band of Merry Pranksters on a psychedelic cross-country pilgrimage.

Since then, Kesey has given us the slip--darting from one goofy project The Media doesn't understand to the next.

But now we've got him, his back to the wall, in a vinyl booth at the Eugene Veteran's Club, a dimly lit bar where he entertains visiting heroes of the counter-culture: William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Gregory Corso.

This evening, however, he is surrounded by his latest gang, a bunch of graduate students from the University of Oregon. In December, Kesey and this class of his released a book they cooked up together in pressurized bursts of group creativity. They called it "Caverns," and gave it the pseudonymous author O.U. Levon (spell that backwards).

"Caverns" is an amusing lark, full of weird characters and goofy plot twists. It was a sufficiently intriguing project to make The Mainstream Media swarm around Kesey again.

But no one is calling "Caverns" literature.

As a New York Times Reviewer snipped, it lacks "a recognizable authorial style . . . a distinctive voice."

And that's why we've arrived in the drizzly Willamette Valley, at the tail end of the latest Media migration, determined to follow Kesey wherever he leads--as it happens, from a bookstore to bar to a Super Bowl party.

What we want to know is this: What happened to Kesey's own voice, one of the most original, defiant, inspiring voices in American fiction? What happened to the booming voice of Randle P. McMurphy, the "bullgoose loony" who raged and joked against conformity, passivity and wimpiness in the 1962 classic "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?"

What happened to the integrity-drenched voice of "Sometimes a Great Notion's" Hank Stamper, the lumberjack with "never give a inch! " emblazoned over his cradle?

Keeeeeeesey! Ken Keeeeeeeeessey! You owe us an explanation! Why, with the world turning into everything you apparently dislike, why haven't you been writing?

Surrounded by his newly minted fellow authors in this perfectly dark and Oregonian bar, Kesey handles such questions with the gentle ease of a world-class wrestler (which he once was) swatting away a lunging toddler.

"There's a point where people just want an artist to keep doing what he's been doing," he says in his soft growl. "Kandinsky (a pioneer Expressionist) had been a great landscape painter. Then he started doing these things that had nothing to do with landscape."

The Establishment of his day rejected it, Kesey says. Just as they reject the extra-literary things he's been doing for 20 years: The carnival-like road shows, with jazz and jugglers and a guy who played a mean William Tell Overture on the harmonica; the quirky video projects, and, most recently, the concerts in which Kesey, decked out in top hat and tails and accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, reads his children's story, "Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear."

Even raising his family out on their 65-acre farm--all of it is art, Kesey says. Just as the Merry Pranksters' long, strange trip in their wildly colored bus "Furthur" was "as good an art work as anything Warhol did."

But The Media want to know: Isn't all this hamming around and hoo-ha just a dodge? Don't you owe America new characters who will speak in the undiluted Keseyan voice that rang out so clearly in the days before 1973's "Garage Sale," when you slipped into "like, far out" hippie-dip jive?

"What are you giving me (trouble) about?" Kesey demands, a touch of weariness creeping into his voice.

The once-great marathon star, Alberto Salazar, lives in Eugene, Kesey says. "He owns a restaurant not far from here. Why don't you go give him (trouble) for not running more marathons? You can only do so many marathons without running out of steam."

Kesey takes a sip of his drink. "I haven't just been loafing," he says, pain and anger edging out the weariness. "I've been doing stuff. But the press, they don't see something until it's all tied up in a bundle."

As Kesey talks, Alison, a dancer and the wife of co-author Jeff Forester, massages the ring-bedecked fingers of Lidia Yukman, another co-author, who met and fell in love with co-author Ken Zimmerman during the three-semester novel-writing class.

Now Yukman's eyes blaze. "Novels are being published every day!" she snaps. "En masse. Who needs another novel?"

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