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Ken Kesey, Novelist and '60s Icon, Dies

Obituary: Author of 'Cuckoo's Nest' and leader of LSD-fueled Pranksters was 66.


Novelist Ken Kesey, who wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," then 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 hallucinogens and a 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."

Los Angeles Times Thursday November 15, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Kesey obituary--The obituary on novelist Ken Kesey that appeared in Sunday's Section A misspelled the name of the bus used by his Merry Pranksters, the free-spirited group that helped spark the psychedelic 1960s. The bus was called Furthur. The story also should have noted that Kesey's son, Jed, died in a van crash in 1984. It erroneously said that he died in 1990 in a car crash.

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, making videos out of the miles of footage 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."

Kesey's literary output was not immense and his later works were often dismissed, sometimes savagely, by critics who suggested that his years of drug experimentation had ruined his writing.

But there was a common strand, 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 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," he said. "That's what 'Great Notion' is about: the small trying to stand up against a great force. But that force is getting stronger."

Kesey was born in La Junta, Colo., the son of dairy farmers. As a child he moved with his family to Oregon, where he developed a great love of the outdoors, swimming, fishing and riding river rapids. He was voted most likely to succeed when he graduated from high school in Springfield.

He went on to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he made his mark as a wrestler and as an actor in campus plays. After graduating in 1957, he spent some time as a bit actor in Hollywood.

He gave up acting for the writing program at Stanford, which he attended on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. He was taught by Wallace Stegner and Malcolm Cowley, the legendary editor of both William Faulkner and Jack Kerouac, whose "On the Road" had just been published. Kesey's fellow students included McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone and Ernest Gaines.

Kesey lived in a Palo Alto bohemian enclave called Perry Lane, where a neighbor told him of government experiments with "psychomimetic" drugs like LSD at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital. In 1959 Kesey signed up as a paid volunteer in the experiments and was so entranced by the mind-altering capabilities of the drugs he was offered that he sought to extend his access by becoming a night attendant in the mental ward.

His experiences provided the grim grist for "Cuckoo's Nest."

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