Lidia Yuknavitch is O.U. Levon: Remembering the Caverns Crew and Ken Kesey’s Kindness

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 8.43.17 AMDuring the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting.

Aside from being a Caverns author, Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the novel Dora: A Headcase and the memoir The Chronology of Water which includes the below chapter about her experience writing Caverns. Recently she signed a deal with Harper Books for two novels.

Lidia’s memoir is heartbreaking, frightening, and uplifting. Her chapter about Kesey and Caverns is full of honesties and human frailties. I’m thrilled she has agreed to let me reprint it below, though I recommend reading the book in its entirety.

 

The Less Than Merry Pranksters

(Excerpted from The Chronology of Water)

 

Bennett Huffman

Jeff Forester

Robert Blucher

Ben Bochner

James Finley

Lynn Jeffress

Neil Lidstrom

Hal Powers

Jane Sather

Charles Varani

Meredith Wadley

Ken Zimmerman

Lidia

Twelve last ditch disciples and me.

How I walked through the door of the 1987-1988 collaborative novel writing workshop with Ken Kesey was that my writer friend Meredith Wadley grabbed my hand and marched me into the class without anyone’s permission. Meredith seemed to me like a cross between a gorgeous and complex Faulkner character with only the faintest hint of a southern drawl, and a wealthy English equestrian champion. Meredith had a mane of dark hair and even darker eyes. In her eyes there were electrical sparks. On the day the “class” was to begin we were drinking beers in her apartment. I admit it. I was jealous. Almost choke on beer jealous. When it came time for her to go to the class, she said, “enough crappy things have happened to you. Come with me.”

I said, “What? That’s crazy. I’m not in the MFA program. I’m not even a grad student. They’re not going to let me enroll.”

If you look us up on Wikipedia it says the book we wrote was written collaboratively by Kesey and “13 graduate students.” I was not an MFA student. I was an undergraduate sort of trolling in English and sleeping with lots of humans and riding the drug train and drinking drinking drinking. My athlete body was gone. I had grown big tits and something called “hips.” I had a huge hunk of permed blond hair. I wasn’t an accomplished writer. I wasn’t an accomplished anything. The only thing I was good at was being a drunk or high cock tease, as near as I could tell. Why would they let me into their group? Why would Kesey?

“Bullshit,” Meredith said, “Kesey is going to love you. Trust me. Plus you are a good writer. You already know half the people in the class. And anyway, you think Kesey gives a rat’s ass about U of O rules?”

Blushing like an idiot, I let her march me down the road between the U of O and the Kesey house that would serve as the classroom for the year, and through the front door.

Sitting at a huge table were the disciples.

My throat shrunk to the circumference of a straw. I thought I might barf.

“Everyone, this is Lidia,” Meredith said.

Great. Now I get to stand here like a moron and explain myself. I just stood there with a little ticker tape running inside my skull: thisiskenkeseythisiskenkesey. The books my father gave me. Sitting in a dark theater with my father watching the films. Paul Newman in Notion. Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kesey, who was at the far end of the room, walked his barrel of a body straight over, pulled out a chair for me, and said, “Well HELLO. What do we have here? A triple A tootsie.” It was the first time I’d seen him not in a photo or at some Oregon literary event. The closer he came, the more nauseous I felt. But when he got right up to me, I could see the former wrestler in his shoulders and chest. His face was moon pie round, his cheeks vividly veined and flushed, puffy with drink. His hair seemed like cotton glued  in odd places on a head. His smile: epic. His eyes were transparent blue. Like mine.

My face got hot and the top of my head itched and all the others in the room looked like writers with special MFA badges while I felt like a human match. Like I might burst into a puny orange flame. While everyone was laughing about the tootsie remark he leaned down and whispered in my ear, “I know what happened to you. Death’s a motherfucker.”

In 1984, Kesey’s son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, was killed on the way to a wrestling tournament when the team’s bald-tired van crashed. My baby girl died the same year. Close to my ear, he smelled like vodka. Familiar.

He handed me a flask and we got along and bonded quickly the way strangers who’ve seen aliens can. That’s all it took. No one ever questioned me. I loved it.

I was 25.

The first day of the collaborative novel writing workshop, Kesey brought out a brown cigar box and asked Jeff Forester to roll a joint. Jeff Forester had beautiful bleached brownblond curly hair and translucent eyes and tan skin. He looked like a surfer to me. But with a wicked vocabulary and mucho skill with words. Jeff didn’t seem to bat an eyelash, he just rolled a perfect fattie, and Kesey began talking his Kesey talk, which began, “I’ve always hated sitting in a room with writers.”

Bennett Huffman took a large toke from the christening joint and passed it. Bennett Huffman was tall and thin and light skinned. His quietness mesmerized me. While we were smoking in a round, Bennett closed his eyes, lost the color in his face, and fell to the ground – almost in slow motion. Passed out cold. I don’t remember who expressed alarm. It was maybe a woman. Like maybe we should call someone or do something. Beautiful Bennett there on the floor.

Kesey simply stepped over our comrade’s body and kept talking, pausing only to say, “He’ll be OK” Looking at us like don’t you know that? It happens all the time. The distance between the 60s and 1987 was as wide as an ocean. You could tell by our clothes, the beer we drank, the I’m a U of O duck looks on our faces. There was no psilocybin, mescaline, or LSD glittering on the surface of our skin. To my knowledge, only one of us had been to rehab or jail, and I wasn’t talking.

In my head I laughed my ass off while I sat and tried to write weird sentences so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I’d never been in any “class” like that in my life. But I’d failed several classes, and I’d flunked out of college before, and I’d been to institutional houses for bad behavior or instability already by then in my life, so this house seemed at least safe to me compared to the tyranny of others.

That first day we free-wrote in the house somebody – maybe Bochner – said, lamely, “I can’t write on the spot like this.” Bochner was sort of an aggressive hippie – the tree hugger with weaponry type. Kesey said: “Then write like a terrorist just busted in and threatened to kill you all – like you have a semi-automatic machine gun at your skull.” And looked at us like we should already know that.

Kesey laid forth two rules: first, we could not talk the plot of the novel with anyone outside of the class; second, Kesey comprised 50 percent of the class. Later a third rule materialized: there could be no writing outside of class. Why? Because we’d do what Oregon writers do and become enamored with our individual voices.

Like with all cult famous folks, everyone in the collaborative novel writing class wanted to be the one Kesey liked best. But since we spent an entire year with him, that energy dissipated at least a little. We saw all the prescription medication he was on. We saw the true size of his gut. We saw how bad his allergies could get. We saw how much he slept. How he smelled. How little energy he seemed to have. How his eyes, when he drank, and he always drank, looked like swollen vodka marbles.

Still, his aura filled the room no matter what the room was. At a reading at U of O during that year he stood on a table and screaming into the microphone “Fuck You, god, Fuck You!” The crowd of about 500 burst into cheers. He believed in spectacle. In giving people the show.

In the fall of the year of Kesey I felt like an awkward jerkette most of the time. When we met as a group my ears kept getting hot and I’d make lines of sweat between my legs and sweat cups under each breast. I didn’t know how to feel close to a group. My only model of group interaction was my dreaded Oedipal family death house. And swim teams. You don’t talk to anyone when you are underwater. My distinguishing characteristics felt like tits and ass and blond. Sexual things. All I had.

I didn’t feel like a terrorist was going to bust in and kill me, but I did feel like some kind of academic authenticity police were going to bust in and cuff me and say you, you don’t belong here. You are not enrolled. You’re not even in the writing program. Look at all that…hair. But it didn’t happen. I just wrote things down on a piece of paper, like everyone else did.

I got the closest to Jeff and Bennett. Maybe that opening scen somehow imprinted on me – Jeff carefully rolling the joint. Bennett passing out like a reverse miracle.

The things I remember about everyone else are retinal flashes – how white Hal’s hair was. How lithe Robert walked. How Jane’s mind and sharp green stare intimidated me. How I wished Lynn had been my mother – a better more magnificent drinker than my own had been. How heavenly Meredith’s ass, how Bochner became our Judas, how Charles became a cop and James had an impressive vocabulary to go with his blazing red hair, how Zimmerman appears elsewhere in this book.

In the winter of the year of Kesey we all went to his coast near Yachats together. A run down old place with wood paneling, a crappy stand up up shower, a table with some chairs, and no heat. But the front windows looked out onto the ocean. And of course the rooms were filled with Kesey. We drank, we walked on the beach, we listened to Kesey stories. Look I’d tell you the stories but you already know them. And he’d say the same ones over and over again. We were, simply put, a pile of new ears. At the coast house we listened to stories about Tim Leary and Mason Williams and Jerry Garcia and Neal Cassady. At the coast house we got high, some of us fucked some others of us, we wrote in little notebooks. We slept on the floor in sleeping bags. We waited for something to happen.

I’m not sure if this is true; I’d have to call all 12 of them and take a poll. But I think we had a dumb hope the whole year. Our hope had nothing to do with the not very good at all book we were collaboratively writing. I think our hope was that Ken Kesey would write another perfect book. That he still had one in him and that we could somehow get it out. But all he kept doing was drinking. No amount of our getting high with him or walking the beach with him or listening to his stories could resurrect the man within the man.

Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are on my bookshelf next to As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom.  Some books take your breath away. Is it the books, or the writers? When I hold Kesey’s books in my hands, when I open them, I can hear his voice. I can see him. Smell him. Feel him. But it’s the words that take my breath. Isn’t that enough?

In the spring of the year f Kesey, on Easter, we walked up Mt. Pisgah to Jed’s resting place. Some of us were high on pot and some of us dropped acid and some of us ate mushrooms. And always Kesey drank from a flask. At the top the wind shuddered the leaves of trees. The mound of grass hill like one of Kesey’s shoulder blades. I liked being up there. Jed underneath us. I felt most alive near death anyway. I just didn’t talk about it much. Except a few times with Kesey. We embraced up there at one point.

Toward the end of the year of Kesey at his house in Pleasant Hill he showed all 13 of us video clips of Neal Cassady. I think Babbs brought them over. Some of us were high on pot and some of us dropped acid and some of us ate mushrooms. And always Kesey drank. Faye was in the kitchen, then she went to church. We sat on the floor we sat on old stuffed chairs we sat on a sunken couch.

When Neal Cassady came on the screen my chest filled with butterflies. He looked and acted exactly like a Kerouac sentence. The close up face of Neal Cassady … all that random quixotic fantastic gibberish and eye shifting and head bobbing and facial tic-ery … it was beautiful. Still though it seemed unreal, or surreal. We were nothing in the face of history but a bunch of waiting ducks. Someone could have picked us off one at a time in a pond. I sat there and wished our watching meant more.

I turned to look at Kesey watching Neal Cassady.  The look on his face. Sitting there in the dark with the last ditch disciples. His smile was crooked – an inside joke kind of smile. His eyes narrowed. He chuckled once or twice. Then I saw him rub his forehead – no doubt a migraine – but in the glow of Neal Cassady it looked to be me more like a man trying to rub out time.

The whole experience made me feel like Alice in Wonderland. How was it again I was in a room with Ken Kesey watching a video of Neal Cassady with a group of people who were “writers?” Who were we? After the video Ken talked a little and we asked him a few questions. Then he had to go to bed. It was 4:30 p.m. I felt like we’d failed at something but I had no idea what.

The end of the year of Kesey culminated in a reading and reception for the book in Gerlinger Lounge at U of O. We all wore 1930’s vintage clothing to mimic the characters in the book. We drank peppermint schnapps one at a time from Kesey’s flask, which sat up at the podium like a flag of his disposition. We’d been interviewed by People. We’d had a photo in Rolling Stone. There were a few parties after that. I barely remember them.

My father actually flew up from Eugene from Florida to attend the reading. He sat in the audience in a $400 grey twill suit. He looked proud. Of something. In Kesey’s presence. When I was born, we lived in a house in the hills over Stinson Beach. 1963. Close enough to ride a bike to La Honda, where Kesey began his parties and acid tests the same year.

When it was my turn to read I drank from the flask and looked out at the audience. My father’s steely architectural gaze. His unforgettable hands. Then I looked at Kesey. He pinched his own nipples and smiled and made me laugh. At the end of the reading my father shook Kesey’s hand and said “I’m a great admirer of yours.” I knew it was true. I watched their hands press together.

When he met Kesey, my father’s voice tremored. In parting, Kesey said to my father, “You know, Lidia can hit it out of the park.” Having gotten as far as a tryout with the Cleveland Indians, that meant something to my father. The phrase I mean.

The relatively crappy novel that came out of us, Caverns, was inspired by an actual news clipping, an Associated Press story on October 31, 1964 entitled “Charles Oswald Loach, Doctor of Theosophy and discoverer of so-called ‘SECRET CAVE OF AMERICAN ANCIENTS,’ which stirred archaeological controversy in 1928.” Set in the 1930’s, Loach is imagined as a convicted murderer who is released from San Quentin Prison, in the custody of a priest, to lead an expedition to rediscover the cave.

It isn’t a very good novel. Whatever it was we entered, it wasn’t a novel. And if we followed an ex-con priest into a cave, all we found was sea lion excrement.

I don’t know if the posse would agree with me on this, but it seemed to me like what we’d entered that year was an ending. The most extreme part or point of something. Or a small piece of something that is left after it has been used. Or perhaps it was simply Kesey’s last act – to further his own end.

Every Oregon writer has a Kesey story. I’m serious – go to literary readings in Oregon and 85 percent of the time his name will rise, whether or not whoever is speaking knew him. Sometimes it’s about his house in Pleasant Hill. Sometimes it’s about the bus. Sometimes it’s about writing. Sometimes it’s about his “wild spirit.” Often, if I’m in the audience, it gives me a stomachache to hear his name used in such … soft and impotent ways.

I think that everyone that knew Kesey knew him differently. Maybe that’s true about all larger than life people, or it may be that no one really ever knows them at all – we just have experiences near them and claim them as our own. We say their names and wish that something intimate is coming out of our mouths. But intimacy isn’t like in books or movies.

It wasn’t until the following year, the year that was not the collaborative writing class, the year after the book we wrote that was not very good came out that made me feel like we’d utterly failed Kesey, the year after he’d ended up in the Mayo clinic for his affair with his lover, vodka, we met once at his coast house by ourselves.

That night he boiled water and cooked pasta and dumped a jar of Ragu on it and we ate it with bent old forks. We drank whiskey out of tin cups. He told life stories. That’s what he was best at. Me? I didn’t have any stories. Did I? When it got dark he lit some crappy looking ancient candles. We sat in two wooden chairs next to each other looking out at the moonlit water. I distinctly remember trying to sit in the chair older and like I had been part of history. Which amounted to extending my legs out and crossing one ankle over the other and crossing my arms over my chest. I looked like Abe Lincoln.

Then he said, “What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you in your life?”

I sat there like a lump trying to conjure up the best thing that had ever happened to me. We both already knew what the worst thing was. Nothing best had happened to me. Had it? I could only answer worst. I looked out at the ocean.

Finally I said, “Swimming.”

“Why swimming?” he said, turning to look at me.

“Because it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” came out of my mouth.

“That’s not the only thing you are good at.” And he put his huge wrestler writer arm around me.

Fuck. This is it. Here it comes. His skins smelled…well it smelled like somebody’s father’s skin. Aftershave and sweat and whiskey and Ragu. He’s going to tell me I’m good at fucking. He’s going to tell me I’m a “tootsie” – the nickname he’d used on me the year of the class. And then I’m going to spread my legs for Ken Kesey, because that’s what blond clueless idiots do. I closed my eyes and waited for the hands of a man to do what they did to women like me.

But he didn’t say any of those things. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands. What are you going to do next?”

I opened my eyes and looked at my hands. They looked extremely dumb. “Next?” I said.

“You know, in your life. What’s next?”

I didn’t have a plan. I had grief. I had rage. I had my sexuality. I liked books more than people. I liked to be drunk and high and fuck so I didn’t have to answer questions like this.

As I’m telling this I realize there is another way to tell it. Tenderly. Quiet and small. The question he asked me. It’s what a loving father should ask.

Or I could lie. I could render an epic psychedelic love affair. Or hot older man younger woman sexcapades. I could write anything. Maybe there are a million ways to tell it.

Kesey was the best liar I ever met in my life.

When I got home I cut all the hair off on the left side of my head, leaving two different women looking at me in the mirror. One with a long trail of blond half way down her back. The other, a woman with hair cropped close to her head and with the bone structure of a beautiful man in her face.

Who.

Am.

I.

Back at U of O I went to classes. Once in the creative writing department a man big as a wrestler walked by me staring at my uneven head hair and kinda banged into my shoulder. Must be a writer. Who gives a shit about writers. Not me. Keep walking. But my heart nearly beat itself up in my chest.

I never saw Kesey again. His liver failed and he got Hepatitis C. In 1997 he had a stroke. Later he got cancer and died. But I’m of the opinion he drowned.

There are many ways to drown.

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King Kong on a DC Traffic Box

Here I am with my kids on the local news. Thanks, Beth Parker and Fox5 DC.

DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

I also made a video that shows more of the process as well as my adorable children.

When I did this last year, I wrote a letter to the DC Arts Commission about transforming more traffic boxes around the city. It didn’t really work, but you can read the correspondence here.

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Letters Outlining Kesey’s Agreement with U. of Oregon

Below are letters from Dr. Paul Armstrong to Ken Kesey about his appointment as Visiting Professor to the University of Oregon. The letters provide insight into what both Armstrong and Kesey envisioned for the class that would go on to write Caverns.

For more background on Caverns, click here.

Armstrong, now at Brown University, became the head of the University of Oregon English Department in 1986. At that time, several creative writing instructors were nearing retirement. Seeing a need to infuse new life into the program, Armstrong created a visiting professor position. When he heard Ken Kesey had expressed interest in teaching, he reached out. The two had lunch at Kesey’s house in the spring of 1987.

Kesey’s literary output and cultural relevance had waned. “I could see the bus there with grass growing through it,” Armstrong recalled. Armstrong also felt Kesey wanted a way to connect with young people after the death of his son Jed.

Kesey recalled with fondness his development as a writer at Stanford University under the direction of Wallace Stegner saying, “That’s where I learned to write.” Still, says Armstrong, “he didn’t want to teach your standard workshop. He wanted to recreate the experience of working together as a group.” Kesey talked about setting up multiple computers. While the technology did not yet exist to share a document over the internet, Kesey wanted students to be able to pass around their floppy disks.

Some within the University warned Armstrong against becoming involved with a controversial persona such as Kesey, but he thought that the potential benefits outweighed any risks. In the end, Armstrong was pleased both with what Kesey taught his students and the positive publicity Caverns brought to the University of Oregon.

Armstrong 1 Armstrong 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Armstrong 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Special thanks to Linda Long, University of Oregon librarian, for helping me obtain these documents.

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Lynn Jeffress is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey Co-author Sees Art in the Process

JeffressDuring the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting. Here is list of all living authors and links to to past interviews:

Robert Blucher, Ben BochnerJames FinleyJeff Forester, Lynn Jeffress, Neil LidstromJane SatherCharles Varani, Meredith Wadley, Lidia Yukman, and Ken Zimmerman.

Lynn Jeffress’s interview is the ninth I’ve published. Lynn wrote about her Caverns experience in a 2004 Northwest Review essay (included below).  She had the following additional thoughts about her experience writing with Kesey:

Why did I write this essay? Well,  it seemed clear to me  that the group writing course was much more than simply an ego hit for an eccentric writer and performance artist. Kesey’s experiment was getting at something bigger. He was trying for a way to counter the classic novel written by a single individual in isolation, no longer expressing  the soul of a country, only decadent individuality, becoming simply, to paraphrase Norman Mailer, an advertisement for itself,  a long, dying cry of grief.

Kesey wanted to say “Bullshit!” to the decadence, but he also wanted to move novels off the dime. In this, the medium was indeed the message. He was looking at com-munal art as a means to turn writing in a new direction, almost a tribal one.

For me, the group novel course echoed Diego Rivera and the Mexican Muralist Movement, where artists and assistants worked together. FDR was persuaded to copy the idea and created the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) during the Depression.  San Francisco’s Coit Tower is painted with PWAP murals as well as one by Diego Rivera. 

If the medium is the message, then ultimately what mattered were our feelings as participants in the process of Kesey’s group art project; and those feelings became what was created in the class. We were the art.  Art was the process, as it must have very much been for the muralists. Kesey was saying that Art could be redefined, it could be moved off the dime, it could get its soul back.

 

Caverns: A New Form of Menippean Satire (Or How the Carnival of Caverns Was Also the Carnival of Our Lives as Writers With Ken Kesey)

Northwest Review, Vol. 42, #2, 2004.

Caverns, a group novel, was the result of nine months spent writing collective fiction with Ken Kesey  at the University of Oregon, beginning in the fall of 1987. As a second year graduate student in the University’s MFA program (Creative Writing), I was eligible to take the class which Kesey had proposed to the English Department sometime earlier. Ultimately, thirteen of us gathered weekly, Mondays and Fridays, for three terms, at Kesey’s campus house on Hilyard Street in Eugene. During that year, we conceived, wrote, and edited a 317 page novel published by Viking Penguin in 1990 — fulfilling a promise made to us by Kesey at the start of that year: We could and would do it, he said.

This particular writing process and outcome was the first of its kind in the United States, up to that time (the Internet has since made collective writing projects a new and very accessible genre). Other collective works had been written, poetry and prose (most notably the 1969 spoof Naked Came the Stranger), but they generally involved the assembling of discrete works by individual authors joined together around a collective theme or plot. Kesey, on the other hand, actually devised a way to amalgamate all our voices, including his, into a single narrative, at the same time allowing us each to do our own work. In other words, we did not simply feed Kesey prose that he then made his own; the whole plot was mixed and something new evolved.

After trial and error (elaborated upon in our forthcoming group memoir about that unusual year, Writing Under the Influence) we settled on a process of composing in class, around a group table, for 30 minutes at a time. Each week we invented a different chapter and chose a weekly editor from the group. This editor divided the chapter into 14 sections. We then pulled our individual sections (written on slips of paper) out of Kesey’s top hat, wrote spontaneously until a timer sounded, read our work aloud into a tape recorder, and had all the pieces typed up by Barbara Platz, a friend of Kesey’s. The group editor then took the 14 sections home and did a first edit. This process continued throughout winter term. In the spring of 1988, we undertook a final re-write, with Kesey carefully overseeing the process. We were all encouraged to stop by the campus house, day or night, to help with the editing.

What evolved was not just a group novel; it was, I believe, a significant part of Kesey’s oeuvre in the sense that Caverns, and the method used to create it, is the culmination of a process begun early in Kesey’s career with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. In these novels, a foundation is laid which establishes the two major aspects of Kesey’s art and life: his use of “carnival” to destabilize an official worldview and his interest in the polyphonic novel as a means to create community through close spatial juxtapositions, a format opposed ultimately to the western notion of the ego in linear time.

Mikhail Bahhtin, the Russian critic who first developed a major theory around the idea of literary carnivalization in his study of Dostoyevsky’s work, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, writes that literary carnival was initially associated with a very early form of literature known as Menippean Satire. Kesey’s work, I feel, is a part of Menippean tradition, ultimately manifested in his orchestration of Caverns. And although there is no evidence that Kesey studied Bakhtin’s theories, given his own carnival sense of the world, Kesey would have felt at home with Bakhtin’s work.

Bakhtin states that “Carnivalization penetrates to the very philosophical core of Menippea” (134). Briefly, it is helpful to know that the word Menippea comes from Menippus of Gadara, a man who did not invent the genre, but who fashioned it into its classical form. Born a slave in the year 3 b.c.e., he became a pupil of the Cynic Metrocles. After purchasing his freedom, he settled in Thebes and proceeded to satirize all formal schools of philosophy and all philosophical elites. Any form that pretended to be a vehicle for learned discourse — the treatise, the cosmography, the epistle, the symposium, the dialogue — were all targets for his ridicule. He wrote thirteen works in all but only a list of those works and a few fragments survive.

Menippean Satire reached its high point in the Renaissance, although literary aspects of the form became traditionalized and are found in the works of writers like Cervantes, Voltaire, Diderot, Hoffman, Poe, Cyrano de Bergerac, Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and, I would suggest, Kesey.

The main aspects of this genre, besides carnivalization, include: 1) its dialogic nature, because it was influenced by the Socratic dialogue; 2) its pronounced comic element; 3) elements of the fantastic, as a means to provoke and test a truth; 4) the picaresque; 5) slum naturalism; 6) scandals and eccentric behavior; 7) oxymoronic combinations; and 8) a journalistic interest in current and topical issues (Bakhtin 114-119).

All these elements are freely evident in Caverns — not of course that any of us knew the ultimate direction of the book at the time we wrote the novel — but with hindsight, it’s not hard to see what we created; we were living and writing the carnival life and, in this particular case, creating satire.

Since Bakhtin covers in depth the notion of the carnivalesque in his book about Dostoyevsky, I will use this work as a background for my argument, but I will not be commenting on Bakhtin’s theories as such, nor judging their merits –rather, I am interested in the categories he lays out, as a means of understanding Caverns as carnivalized literature, as well as the notion of polyphonic narrative.

Carvinvalization is defined by Bakhtin as the transposition of carnival images into the language of literature:

Carnival has worked out an entire language of symbolic concretely sensuous forms — from large and complex mass actions to individual carnivalistic gestures…This language cannot be translated in any full or adequate way into a verbal language, and much less into a language of abstract concepts, but it is amenable to a certain transposition into a language of artistic images that has something in common with its concretely sensuous nature; that is, it an be transposed into the language of literature (122).

 

One of the most “carnivalistic gestures” in literature is the picaresque journey. Add to this, as happens in Caverns, that it is a group journey whose members were or are part of a carnival. Charles Loach, the hero of Caverns, is a former carny and a recent prison inmate. Bakhtin notes that convicts, as well as gamblers, are carnivalized figures, their lives being “life taken out of life” (172). Loach claims to know where an ancient cave exists on whose walls are written the secrets of the universe. He is let out of prison after six years (having been sentenced to 20 for murder) in order to find the cave and hand over its secrets to the media and to science. If he can do this, he will be set free for good. The plot is as fantastic as Raiders of the Lost Ark (a very carnivalesque film). An opening paragraph describes Loach’s “theosophy temple” on the outskirts of Chinatown in San Francisco:

A small stained-glass window is set in the metal door, no bigger than a porthole. Its faceted pattern describes the looping cross of an Egyptian ankh, and a shaft of morning sunlight has poked its way through the hanging fog and into the beveled glass of the symbol’s center. The shaft zigzags down carpeted steps to a room located below the house, a subterranean hall — vast and still. (Caverns 3)

Loach brings together an eccentric group of characters for his cave-hunting expedition, three of whom worked with him previously in the circus: Loach’s brother Dogeye, a curiosity who lives alone in the Utah desert and has built The Museum of Natural Curiosities; Gaby, daughter of Lidia the Lightening Lady; and Juke (short for human jukebox), who was mustard gassed in WWI and now has blue skin. Also on board the bus are the two Makai sisters, Mona and Romona, given to astrological babbling; their nephew, Rodney, and alcoholic Hollywood producer; Father Paul, the poker playing priest who is losing his vocation, piece by piece (so to speak); Chick Ferrel a reporter and sober alcoholic who has one last chance to make good; Jocelyn Caine, an intrepid cave-phobic anthropologist; and Boyle, a redneck jack-Mormon. These characters join up on the bus, a World War I CC Rider, a casualty carrier. They all head north and discover one morning that Loach and his brother have blacked out the windows so none of the passengers will know where the cave is. Much of the novel takes place on this bus, the close quarters precipitating the plot.

Bakhtin explains in what way closeness of this kind, carnival closeness, is liberating.

Carnival is past millennia’s way of sensing the world as one great communal performance. This sense of the world, liberating one from fear, bring the world maximally close to another (everything is drawn into the zone of free familiar contact), with its joy at change and its joyful relativity, is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order. From precisely that sort of seriousness did the carnival sense of the world liberate a man (160).

In other words, carnivalization creates a kind of tribal existence; it liberates a community of revelers by making “the world maximally close to a person and bringing one person maximally close to another.” It seems probably that it was this kind of thing Kesey was aiming for when he conceived of a group novel class. Thirteen of us, plus Kesey, came together, “checked our egos at the door,” and developed, over the course of months , a communal psyche that gave voice, through art, to a communal spirit. We became a tribe. We were carnivalized.

The novel was, I believe, almost a by-product of Kesey’s real interest. The overriding work of art for him was the class itself, which, by its “polyphonic” nature, mocked the seriousness of normal and seemly creative writing classes, those which often foster individual writing egos. Kesey’s group novel class stripped each of us of our egos and forced us into the carnival of community. And from this collision and quarrel, a Socratic notion (Bakhtin 110), a single-voiced work of carnivalized fiction was created.

In orchestrating Caverns, Kesey moved beyond what Bakhtin characterizes as the polyphonic novel invented by Dostoyevsky (7) and which Kesey developed in Sometimes a Great Notion. Polyphony is as important an aspect of Mineppea as carnivalization, and Bakhtin, in writing about the polyphony in Dostoyevsky’s work, also helps clarify the use of the numerous voices in Sometimes a Great Notion.

A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather, a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event (6).

 In Notion, Kesey juxtaposes one point of view against another, until the reader’s head almost spins. This type of polyphony, for Bakhtin, is a way of conceiving the world primarily in terms of space, not time (28). Bakhtin writes that Dostoyevsky, instead of striving to perceive all existing contradictions as various stages of some unified development,

…attempted to perceive the very stages themselves in their simultaneity, to juxtapose and counterpose them dramatically, and not stretch them out into an evolving sequence. For him, to get one’s bearings on the world meant to conceive all its contents as simultaneous, and to guess at their interrelationships in the cross-section of a single moment (28).

In other words, “He saw and conceived his world primarily in terms of space, not time” (Bakhtin 28).

Kesey, too, conceived of his world in terms of space, not time; hence his interest in polyphony and carnivalization. The opening 45 pages of Notion illustrate Kesey’s supreme interest in space created through polyphony. Kaleidoscopically, the points of view shift from an omniscient narrator, to Drager, to the sun, to a jukebox, to the Stamper house, to a car, to Viv. In this way, it appears that everyone and everything is living simultaneously, and there exists a dialogue between all things — dialogue, not monologue.

Kesey’s interest in dialogue is illustrated by comparing him to Faulkner, a writer Kesey much admired. In Bennett Huffman’s 2001 dissertation on Kesey’s work, he writes:

The American modernist master of multiple perspective strategies is William Faulkner, Ken Kesey’s admitted favourite author. Fifty-nine interior monologues of fifteen different characters make up As I lay Dying (1930). The ratio of fifteen perspectives to fifty-nine distinct sections is an easily graspable level of complexity well within the bounds of the modernist novel. In contrast, Kesey’s most complex novel, Notion, presents a wide range of modes (dialogue, narration, epistolary, internal monologue, etc.) from a larger number of personae (twenty-two) than Faulkner’s work. Unlike the modernist segment, which in Faulkner averages between two to ten pages per monologue, Notion’s segments of perspective can be as short as a single word and rarely ever longer than two pages (62-63). 

 

Kesey’s short, sharp narrative shifts echo the dialogic novels of Dostoyevsky which posses a “continual and abrupt alternation of the most varied types of discourse” (Bakhtin 203). Bakhtin compares the dialogic and monologic novels this way:

Whatever discourse types are introduced by the author-monologist, whatever their compositional distribution, the author’s intentions and evaluations must dominate over all the others and must form a compact and unambiguous whole (202).

 In contrast, the author-dialogist, such as Kesey, “does not fear the most extreme activization of vari-directional accents in double-voiced discourse; on the contrary, such activization is precisely what he needs to achieve his purpose” (204).

I would suggest that Kesey’s life-long focus on community was such that he used the polyphonic, dialogic narrative in Notion to invent a literary tribe, although, ultimately, this was not “dialogic” enough for him. He expanded “dialogic narrative” by creating the unique Caverns environment. By means of forming a group novel writing class, he carnivalized the writing process and, by so doing, reformed it, bringing into the mix living narrators who placed their voices alongside his in order to create the spatial “simultaneity” and carnivalization that Bakhtin sees inherent in Menippean Satire.

Kesey’s sense of theater was very much a factor in the group satire he created. Kesey once said: “You can stay passive and sit in the audience or you can get up on stage, be the drama itself.” That’s what he wanted for everyone, that they be the active participants in the theater of their own lives. The group novel writing class was that theater; we were the actors; the novel was the play.

Kesey’s grandfather was part Native American. Kesey told me this one day when I was in Pleasant Hill and we were looking at outtakes of Twister, which he was editing on his Mac. Kesey’s photo came up on the computer monitor. The photo made him look Native American. “Do you have Indian blood?” I asked him. He said, “Let’s put it this way: my grandfather was Indian enough to be on the Indian rolls. Part Cherokee, part Apache.” Possibly, it was this spirit in Kesey that motivated him to lead the life he did, surrounded by pranksters. He created, one way and another, his own personal tribe, ready at a moment’s notice to participate in carnivalized events like driving cross country in a wildly painted school bus, or writing a group novel.

Certainly, it makes sense that such a tribal spirit as his would be interested in group art, in a group novel, the same kind of group work that produced Furthur, the first prankster bus that crossed the country in 1964, and later, Further, a reincarnation of the original bus, whose painting we in the group novel class all contributed to, a modern form of cave painting that gave voice to everyone in Kesey’s community, family, friends, and passers-by.

The bus Further, as well as the CC bus in the novel, are representative of what Bakhtin calls the Carnival Square. He writes that this public space was the main arena for carnival acts because it “belongs to the whole people, it is universal, everyone must participate in its familiar contact…” And, he adds: “Other places of action as well (provided they are realistically motivated by the plot, of course) can, if they become meeting and contact points for heterogeneous people — streets, taverns, roads, bathhouses, decks of ships, and so on –take on this additional carnival-square significance” (128).

In caverns, the CC Rider is the Carnival Square. In life, it was Kesey’s house on Hilyard Street and his bus Further. Each was the setting for “communal performance.” And communal performance is the essence of carnival:

Carnival is the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous half-real and half-play-acted form, a new mode of interrelation-ship between individuals, counterposed to the all-powerful sociohierarchical relationships of non-carnival life. The behavior, gesture, and discourse of a person are freed from the authority of all hierarchical positions (social estate, rank, age, property) defining them totally in non-carnival life, and thus, from the vantage point of non-carnival life, (carnival gestures and behavior) become eccentric and inappropriate. Eccentricity is a special category of the carnival sense of the world (and of Menippea), organically connected with the category of familiar contact; eccentricity permits — in concretely sensuous form — the latent sides of human nature to reveal and express themselves (123).

Just so, through the contrivance of an eccentric and picaresque bus journey, there is a democratic gathering of unrelated characters in Caverns; new modes of relationships are formed )referred to as “oxymoronic combinations” by Bakhtin): the motherless carny Gaby, secretly pregnant, turns to the middle-class, single, highly educated scientist Jo Gaine for maternal aid; the jack-Mormon and racist Boyle learns brotherhood as he comes to the aid of his fellow travelers, including a respect for the intrepid black bus driver, Ned Blue; Father Paul learns, through his attraction to Gaby, that he is meant for love and family life: Juke becomes a recording engineer with the aid of the condescending Rodney Makai whose life is dramatically changed for the better by his encounter with bears. Very pointedly, in fact, the novel’s Epilogue details the eccentric and relatively happy ending of most characters in the book.

Outside the novel’s fictional world, new modes of relationships were forming in our group novel class, as well. The class, a heterogeneous group of relative strangers, came together unexpectedly and found itself on its own sort of picaresque journey. At one point, we were actually taken on an eccentric bus trip to central Oregon, in a window-darkened crummy (driven by Kesey’s brother Chuck) and then introduced to the bowels of a lava cave. This was Kesey’s way of getting around his own dictate: Write what you don’t know. Yes, but…You need to do research. The bus trip to Bend was part of that research, with all our individual writers’ egos touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling the same things. Indeed, during that year, we watched the same movies, read the same books, watched Kesey do magic tricks, drank wine, ate his wife Faye’s marvelous cooking, quarreled, made up, and wrote, in the end, Caverns, a work made up of a polyphony of voices that dovetailed into an innovative kind of novel, the result of a new mode of writing relationship — the result, ultimately, of carnivalization.

As mentioned earlier, carnivalization is defined as the transposition of carnival images into the language of literature. Bakhtin notes that “all the images of carnival are dualistic, a word he uses interchangeably wit the word ambivalent); they unite within themselves both poles of change and crisis: birth and death; blessing and curse; praise and abuse, youth and old age, top and bottom, face and backside, stupidity and wisdom” (126). During medieval European carnivals, Bakhtin writes, there was almost always a special structure, a gaudy vehicle of sorts, usually called “hell,” which, at carnival’s end, was set on fire. Fire is the most ambivalent of all carnival images and woven throughout Caverns is the leitmotif of fire.

All the characters in the novel are like pyromaniacal children playing with a box of matches (to paraphrase a line used to describe Juke, who, during the war, had been a powder monkey). Watching Juke play with fire, lighting one match after another and throwing it to the ground, Loach thinks: “Little truths, flaring and burning out, one after another.” The novel attempts to get at the little truths that define each character.

Fire is present at each point in the journey. Half an hour from the California border, in Nevada, a convertible races past the CC Rider, honking and shouting: “You’re on fire, folks! You’re on fire.” And indeed they are (a tire has burst into flames). And at night there are campfires around which important philosophical encounters take place for various characters. Later, a destructive “bacon” fire burns down a lean-to near the site of the cave, destroying the group’s only shelter. Descending into the cave, the “seekers” use carbide pellets to create little flames of light on their headgear. And, in the end, it is no surprise that it is Chick Ferrel who dies in the cave, the one who forgot his flash equipment, who never had enough light. Finally, there is a huge dynamite blast that unplugs the vortex stopped up by the body of the drowned Chick. The bomb is devised by Juke out of carbide pebbles in glass jars and wrapped with dynamite sticks, the whole invention sparked by a burning cigarette — all this a reflection of destruction and renewal in the text, the dark and the light.

But, be advised, this hustle and bustle of busy soul-searching is done tongue-in-cheek by way of a mult-voiced omniscient narrator who never fails to see the humor in the situation. The laughter in Caverns is very much carnival laughter. The  slapstick elements (Juke’s Harpo Marx antics), the puns, the carnivalized prose (full of street slang) are all aimed at creating carnival laughter.

Bakhtin notes that this type of laughter “is linked with the most ancient forms of ritual laughter” (126), which were directed toward something higher, gods, for instance, or earthly authorities, as a way to shame and ridicule them into renewing themselves. Carnival laughter is a “profoundly universal laughter, a laughter that contains a whole outlook on the world” (127). Bakhtin writes that carnival laughter is “deeply ambivalent” and “much was permitted in the form of laughter that was impermissible in serious forms” (127)

Kesey’s earliest novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is profoundly illustrative of ambivalent laughter. Through the laughter in Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey created “parodia sacra,” which Bakhtin describes as a “parody of sacred texts of ritual” (127), an integral element in Menippean Satire.  Cuckoo’s Nest grapples with the enormous issues of sanity and insanity and those who define the differences — definitions which imply one of the society’s most sacred texts.

Caverns is meant, I believe, to parody the “sacred” literary text of the adventure novel, just as Raiders of the Lost Ark parodies old adventure films. Kesey, one speculates, felt dubious about the modern American novel. And given his Preface to Caverns, it’s clear that he was indeed dubious about the modern American novel. Consequently, he formed an eccentric group novel class (a parody) which wrote the one type of group fiction that a group could write: a parody. Caverns is, I believe, exactly the type of work Kesey wanted to produce, in the way he wanted to produce it, given his outlook on the novel and the world. But it must be added that parody is not necessarily a naked rejection of the parodied object. Kesey’s aim, like that of ritual laughter, may well have been to shame and ridicule the novel into renewing itself.

What can be said with assurance is that Kesey’s interest in the polyphonic novel and carnivalization took him “further” than others interested in the same genre. Kesey did not merely create polyphonic characters, he invented a group of polyphonic narrators (our group novel class), thereby fashioning a unique community. Living narrators became “characters” in a live drama that was the novel we wrote together. In describing the workings of the polyphonic novel Bakhtin writes:

A character’s word about himself and his world is just as fully weighted as the author’s word usually is; it is not subordinated to the characters’s objectified image as merely one of his characteristics, nor does it serve as a mouthpiece for the author’s voice. It possesses extraordinary independence in the structure of the work; it sounds, as it were, alongside the author’s word and in a special way combines both with it and with the full and equally valid voices of other characters (7).

We stood along side Kesey in writing Caverns. Our voices were equally valid. If we, as individual narrators, were characters in a living novel, then it’s clear that Kesey’s use of the polyphonic in creating Caverns expanded to include live community. By creating a living polyphony joined with carnivalization, Kesey invented a parody that ultimately asks questions about the nature of art and community.

Kesey was interested in new forms of everything. He was aware, certainly, of living at a dark moment in history, when things are falling apart, hopefully to be reconstituted. Who knows how it will end. It is especially at this time that carnivalized literature makes the most sense. As Loach says in Caverns: “The sideshow always struck me as a mirror of mankind’s hidden face.” Caverns — the process that created it — is a kind of sideshow. Perhaps, by inventing this benign Hydra, Kesey, the old carny, was inviting everyone, now when excessive individualism has led us to the brink of annihilation, to study our culture’s hidden face — that of community.

Notes:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson.
Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 1984

Huffman, Bennett. Fictional Forms and Social Visions in the Works of Ken Kesey. Dis. University of Liverpool. 2001.

 

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Hal Powers (H. Highwater Powers) is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey Co-author Shares His Thoughts on Writing

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting. Here is list of all living authors and links to to past interviews:

Robert Blucher, Ben BochnerJames FinleyJeff Forester, Lynn Jeffress, Neil LidstromJane SatherCharles Varani, Meredith Wadley, Lidia Yukman, and Ken Zimmerman.

Hal Powers’s interview is the eighth I’ve published. In each case, I gave the interviewee wide latitude as far as what questions he/she answered and in what format. Hal made use of this latitude and chose to focus on the two questions he found the most important and relevant.

powersWhat is your life like now? Are you still writing? 

At age 71, I sometimes think of myself as a spin-off of the real-life character Chuck Kinder, a writer and poster child for any combination of three serious creative disorders affecting wordsmiths: writer’s block, procrastination, and hypergraphia, the midnight disease. Kinder (1972-73), like Ken Kesey (1959), was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and the role model for one of his student’s novels, Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys rightfully wears the loose sleeveless mantle of Kinder, who in real time spent nearly 20 years producing an unwieldy novel of over 3,000 pages which, under the thumb of an editor, became a reasonable 358 leafs entitled The Honeymooners in 2001, an admitted romans à clef based on his friendship with fellow Stegner Fellow, Raymond Carver.

After the Kesey experiment, I began teaching Conversational English in Japan, retiring in 2008. In contrast to the inordinate amount of money I earned, my teaching load and responsibilities were ridiculously light. It was then, in my self-imposed monastic lifestyle, that I began to seriously focus on reading all the great and lesser works that I had under deadlines often skimmed in college, and it was in my Nagoya apartment that I discovered and recognized my writing voice referred to in quantum detail – some believe tediously and inaccurately – in Caverns and Voices, a submission to our group’s later intention of following up the Kesey project with a book illuminating our experience.

And then I wrote.

I began work on a collection of inter-connecting short stories – pieces that might be able to stand alone while also supporting a novel-length format – The High Rock Stories, featuring an aging dilettante who in his sixties, with a worn-out Remington typewriter, returns to his crumbling mill town with dreams of solving an age-old mystery while recording for posterity some of the stories he learned from and about its townspeople before he took to the road right out of high school in 1961 in search of Kerouac-ian adventures. One would have similar difficulty locating the restless line between Chuck Kinder’s confessed roman à clef and my approach to story writing since we both admittedly draw more heavily from actual experiences rather than pure imagination – if there really is such a thing – during the creative process. All of which flies in the face of a Kesey dictum: Don’t write about what you know.

In exile as an ex-pat, I decided that either Kesey had been misunderstood or we had been misled by him. I chose the latter. I believe the deeper we scratch our psychic wounds, the closer we can get to understanding what it truly means to be human. Profound rich truths, like one’s writing voice, spurt crimson upon blank pages from ruptured arteries, not from leaking the tired, grey-tinged blood from surface-level veins. His advice was probably a calculated, preemptive action designed to prevent us from setting our experimental novel on a college campus with a stock of frat-brothers-sorority-sisters, hot co-eds and self-indulgent professors that could have echoed of the page the Animal House story filmed in Eugene environs and on the UO campus just some twelve years earlier.

Don’t write about what you know. If that’s good advice, then how do you square the great successes of Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion with his admitted experiences as a guinea pig for psychedelics at Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital, his stint working at the state veteran’s hospital, and from living in Eugene, the hub of so many logging communities rimming Eugene and brimming with logging lore? As all great writers, Kesey fundamentally wrote about what he knew first hand; in the case of Caverns, our great mentor simply thought it best to have his hands firmly on the steering wheel of his busload of neophytes.

CavernsNovelLike Grady Tripp, AKA Chuck Kinder, I have suffered wounds many times by killer questions fired unexpectedly at me about my writing. They zing and whiz, come at the most absurd moments, like the sniper’s bullet that killed Lew Ayers in All Quiet On The Western Front as he reached his hand out of the muck and mire of the trenches toward the beauty of a butterfly. I, too, wear the mantle of a writer, am certified by an MFA in fiction, credited as a co-author of Caverns, have won a couple of minor awards in fiction and journalism, have mentored and taught novices in composition and story, and I talk-the-talk fairly well, which means my cloak is emblazoned with a powerful electro-magnetic target that sucks every errant missile my way, whether by foe or friend: Yer a writer? Whaddaya write? How’s that novel of yers going? When ya gonna finish? And the most recent and troublesome questions by Theodore Carter in this blog:

What is your life now? Are you still writing?” 

There’s only one acceptable definition for the word writer: A writer is one who writes, a definition which is not predicated upon either one’s degree of public success stemming from one’s list of publications. In its most simplistic form, it means for me to be actively engaged in the process of putting words on a page. It means to be active in some phase of a creative process dealing with words – and the key word here is active – whether it be reading, note-taking, brainstorming, contemplating or typing, any activity that leads the creator or audience to an image whose essences is based on word play. It means for me to be actively engaged in story-telling – whether fiction or not – poetry, song lyrics, letters, informative or entertaining essays or memorials or tributes, journaling, or just plain jazzing around, all forms of the written word specific and personal to my oeuvre as a writer.

What is your life like now? Are you still writing, asks Mr. Carter. I occasionally write poems as I have over the years whenever I fell in love or had my heart broken or found myself beaming an illegal smile. For the last two years I have been working with my brother, a talented guitarist and singer in Syracuse, New York who finds a way to musically adapt and express my words as we work together to create a collection of songs for a CD.

As old school as it sounds, I write letters. Long-paged true epistles from the heart and head. Whether or not it’s a missive to a Miss concerning the ambitions and complications of love, or a forwarding of a flaming kite to traffic court appealing a parking ticket, I labor mightily at achieving accuracy, clarity, creativity in text and tone. I may not always win my pleadings to love or law, but I am usually pleased, sometimes even amused at my dedication to, and honor of, the printed word.

I have to my credit a handful of essays written in the last few years that attest to my dogged pursuit of trying to make sense out of the art of writing, my life, the passing-over of loved ones, and almost daily I scratch on sticky notes, napkins, yellow pads, and grocery receipts written fragments both brilliant and mundane and eventually get them transcribed into my treasured cyber notebook which takes up where my shelf of spiral bound paper equivalents left off quite a few years ago.

My electronic journal houses my Fictionary, a compilation of departments dedicated to language, dialogue, descriptive terms, contractions-expletives-interjections and samples of technique and dialogue, anything that may support my writing projects. The bulk of my journal, however, comprises my two prospective novels with the working titles: Revenge, which grew out of my collection of shorter pieces, The High Rock Stories, and overshadows them in terms of length and its state of incompleteness, and Silvia Steel, the Silver Angel: the almost true story of a near-life event, a semi-historical story about barnstorming after WWI. Like Chuck Kinder and his novel, The Honeymooners, these two works of mine have absorbed most of my creative energy for years. Almost daily I rob and steal from other writers, film, drama, conversations, personal observations, any medium of written or spoken word, and, notes in hand and inspired, I feed the essence of those purloined fragments, with my own personalized twists, into ever-expanding character profiles and plotting. My two protagonists in Revenge, Bobby Draygo and Will Hardesty, therefore, are now as real and alive to me as family, as are Silvia Steel and The Boy who believes in her.

This is where Charlie Rose, Bill Moyer, or those less luminous ask: But is that writing…real writing? Yes, I answer, under the definition at the beginning of this conversation, it’s writing. Writing, as the gurus like to say, is a process, and the snail-paced work I have been doing for years is the heart of my particular process. I am actively putting words on the page and am constantly creating and living with my stories. That’s writing in its simplest form. What I am not doing at this point in my life is sharing or publishing my work because, for now, the pace and load of work itself seems sufficient.

Kesey once told us cavers to not disparage the blue hair ladies of the local writers circle because writers, all writers, face a most difficult challenge, and they and our present luminaries need our empathy and support, the sub-text of which is that public success is not the truest measure of a writer. Writers not blessed with abundant talent, or the pluck and luck, or the will for whatever reason, that leads to publication often face and overcome much more formidable obstacles than the more gifted and renowned.

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Truman Capote and The Potato Book

or 

In Cold Potato Leek Soup

While weeding through my mother-in-law’s extensive collection of cookbooks, I came across The Potato Book, published in 1973 with a foreword by Truman Capote.

photoCapote’s famous name conjures up a lot of images and associations for me, none of which have anything to do with potatoes.

I flipped through the book which, aside from an extensive collection of potato recipes, includes black and white illustrations from twenty three different artists. Capote, in his short foreword, proclaims a fondness for baked potatoes topped with sour cream and caviar and paired with vodka.

My central question (why did Truman Capote write a foreword for a potato cookbook?) remained unanswered.

I tracked down the book’s author, Myrna Davis, former head of the Art Director’s Club who relayed the following story:

The Potato Book was created for the benefit of The Hampton Day School, an alternative school (pre-K through 12) situated on a former potato farm in Bridgehampton in 1966. I came up with the concept for the book, gathered recipes and edited them, and invited artist friends to contribute drawings for the book. Truman Capote was a friend and neighbor of one of the school’s founders and a supporter of it, and graciously agreed to do an introduction. Paul (the artist Paul Davis and Myrna’s husband) designed the cover and formatted the pages, and another parent and I pasted it up on boards. The first edition was printed locally, the costs for which were repaid out of the first proceeds.photo-1

After seeing it, Narcisse Chamberlain, an editor from William Morrow & Co. asked to publish it in hardcover (as did a very young Peter Workman). It afterward went into four foreign editions–Italian, Dutch, German and Japanese (translated by the filmmaker Itami Juzo)–and then an English language paperback, remaining in print until 1980.

In a way, The Potato Book became a self-publishing success story years before such success stories came into vogue. Is it too much to say that the Potato Book helped pave the way for the self-published Fifty Shades of Grey? A logical connection, right?

According to Myrna Davis, an e-book version of The Potato Book is in the works.

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Interview with DC Street Artist Kelly Towles

Kelly Towles’s work is all over Washignton, DC. Recently, he completed a massive mural near Nationals Park. Below, he answers questions about that piece and his other work.

When and why did you first start putting up work around DC?

I started doing graffiti back in the 90’s because I was a pretty pissed off kid. It was a good release and outlet for me. I was never great at letters, so I focused on characters and it stuck.

Where are the best places to see your work out in the wild?

Right now “Scout” at 12th and W NW is a good one, plus a lot more scattered throughout the city.

scout

“Scout” on the corner of 12th and W St., NW.  (Photo: Kelly Towles)

What was The Art Yards project and what was your role in getting it off the ground? Where did the money come from?

The Art Yards project was an effort put together by myself and Forest City (a real estate Management Company). I curated the large murals on the building as well as collaborated on one with Jasper Wong. Then, after we completed our mural, DabsMyla came in to create their stellar bat. Forest City was amazing enough to provide access to the building and fund the murals.

Yards mural

Kelly Towles and Jasper Wong mural. (Photo: Kelly Towles)

DabsMyla Bat

DabsMyla Bat at The Art Yards (Photo: DabsMyla)

You’ve put up massive outdoor murals, had your work on a beer label, and done work for DC restaurants and businesses. Are there certain jobs, or pieces, that were particularly helpful in nurturing your career?

I feel that the newest project I work on is always my next task. It’s an ongoing cycle of learning and creating.

What’s up with the boxing gloves and the masks?

So, here is the kinda art statement thing. The boxing gloves are like an internal conflict thing and the mask…we all have something to hide.

What are you working on next?

I have a solo show coming in mid March that I am working really hard on.

What’s your favorite piece of public art in DC?

I have to say I love the DabsMyla piece. It is pretty epic and the size is huge. Largest piece of street art in DC.

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Never-Before-Seen 1990 Ken Kesey Interview

Recently, I received an email from Dr. Timothy M. Tays, a psychologist, author (Wannabe Distance God: The Thirst, Angst, and Passion of Running in the Chase Pack), and former freelance journalist. In 1990, with the hopes of selling a story to the local paper, Dr. Tays called Ken Kesey to ask about Caverns.

The local paper didn’t want the interview and it appears here for the first time.

CavernsNovelINTERVIEW WITH KEN KESEY (1990)

Ken Kesey: I don’t know what that buzz is on our line. It must be the FBI still after me.

Timothy M. Tays: Albuquerque is a long call to you. Tell me, what was the most enjoyable aspect of writing Caverns as a group novel?

Kesey: The energy with thirteen students who were all mature and capable. It was exciting. We would go to class and someone would strike a chord. Like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson all getting together.

TT: What was the least enjoyable?

Kesey: Overcoming the fear the University had of a different way of teaching. They are entrenched. They didn’t know what would come from this fried old hippy. They didn’t know if it would be a success.

TT: Is it?

Kesey: Yes. It’s a thriller. In the time we had we couldn’t have gotten together and written The Brothers Karamazov.

TT: Is there any particular reason you chose the Mormons as the fundamentalist bad guys in Caverns?

Kesey: Large, powerful religions based on race are the villains. This is set in the early 1930′s, when Mormons were like that. Jimmy Swaggart is like this today.

TT: You’ve been quoted, in essence, as saying to critics that you’ve produced two successful novels already. What more do you have to prove? Do you feel that interviewers are too invasive?

Kesey: No, not really. I deal with everyone in the terms of themselves. I talk to the person, not just a reporter. We are all writers after all.

TT: Do you have plans to write another novel solo?

Kesey: I have four coming out this year alone. You know what they say, “The dog has to keep going against the bear just to keep reminding itself that it’s a dog.” The bear is like writing a new novel. I have Caverns out. A Further Inquiry will be out in October. Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear is a children’s book out soon. Also one called Shoola and the Sea Lion. None are as big as Sometimes a Great Notion though. But I’m working on a big novel now. It’s already over three hundred pages. It’s called Sailor Song, and is a conventional novel that I keep attaching electrodes to each side of to try to raise up, but so far nothing.

TT: Does your new novel, A Further Inquiry, have anything to do with The Merry Pranksters’ old bus named Further that’s sitting out rusting in one of your fields?

Kesey: Yes. We resurrected the old bus to promote A Further Inquiry. We drove it right into the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas like Frankenstein. Twenty thousand people were there.

TT: Do you still keep in touch with The Grateful Dead?

Kesey: They’re over here right now.

TT: Is Jerry Garcia there too?

Kesey: Yes.

TT: You wrote a first novel called The Zoo which was never published. Why not?

Kesey: I also wrote a novel called End of Autumn, but after writing them I realized I could do better so I never tried to publish them. The Zoo is in the Stanford library now as my thesis.

TT: What’s your opinion on America’s so-called “War on Drugs”?

Kesey: They would be legalized if people used equanimity. Anti-drug fanatics and cops are the criminals—it’s like McCarthyism. They need someone to dislike to distract the public from the really important problems. No one has the right to tell me what I can do inside my own head. That’s what this country is all about—freedom. There is a war on free thinking. Like the flag issue and the Mapplethorpe thing. Grass is no problem. Cocaine is controlled by bad people is the problem there. But do they ask me to help?

TT: Do they?

Kesey: No. They only want simplistic answers and sound bites.

TT: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we conclude this interview?

Kesey: Yeah. The next decade we’ll see a swing of values from the youth towards the environmental problems. They rolled and meditated, used crystals and bought BMW’s, only to discover it’s not as fun as doing what is right. Right for the environment. What’s important is the air, land, and water.

TT: I wish you luck on your forthcoming books. I’ll let you get back to your company.

Kesey: All weekend it’s going to be nothing but The Dead and Deadheads. What a long strange trip it still is!

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Ben Bochner is O.U. Levon: The Caverns Co-Author Fell from Grace and Became Ken Kesey’s “Rogue Reader”

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting and provide links to the other interviews.

Ben Bochner’s interview is the seventh I’ve published, and it’s the longest.  When contacting each living co-author, I supplied a list of simple questions, a form all previous respondents used, more or less. However, I also told each that deviations from the script were welcome.

Ben Bochner today. Photo by Lindsay Haisley.

Ben Bochner today. Photo by Lindsay Haisley.

Bochner responded to my initial emails with some off-the-record background about his story, how he unwittingly infuriated Ken Kesey, a man whom he admired and had wanted so badly to please.  As evidence, he pointed me to a Paris Review interview published in 1995 where Kesey delivers one of his most famous quotes, one that would be repeated frequently in articles about Kesey for years to come: “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery.”

The lead in to this quote is a story about Bochner: “When I was working on Caverns, I found out that one of the problems was that students kept looking for the answers to symbolic riddles and believed that modern fiction is supposed to supply you with the answer.” Later in the interview, he says of Bochner, “…the class was just ready to string him up. What are you gonna do to him? someone asked. I said, We’re not gonna do anything. We’re not gonna talk about it. We won’t speak of it. We will not ever speak again of this to him at all.”

Later, Bochner learned he’d become a frequent anecdote in subsequent Kesey interviews and campus lectures which always ended with Kesey quoting the climatic lines from the Paris Review interview:

“It’s the job of the writer in America to say, Fuck you, God, fuck you and the Old Testament that you rode in on, fuck you. The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful. Anytime anybody comes to you and says, “Write my advertisement, be my ad manager,” tell him, “Fuck you.” The job is always to be exposing God as the crook, as the sleaze ball.”

Years later, Kesey’s biographer would ask Bochner, “How does it feel to be infamous?”

Bochner didn’t feel his story fit with my prefabricated questions and asked that we begin a conversation over email.

Below is an amalgamation of approximately 35 emails I exchanged with Bochner.  It’s the first time he’s detailed his account of how he became Ken Kesey’s “Rogue Reader.”

What were your thoughts upon seeing Kesey that first day of class and hearing his idea about cooperatively writing a book in one academic year?

I do believe the first thing that impressed me about Kesey was how pink he was. The guy who came barreling in was a big Nordic bear, sweating and red-faced, giving off a pleasant odor of fresh straw. He poured himself a glass of water, lapped it up – like a bear! – and launched into his idea for writing a group novel.

I was surprised by the gentleness of his voice. It was smaller than what I’d expected out of a man of that size, softer than I’d been led to expect from his heroic portrayal in the media. It was intimate and had just a hint of a country accent to it. That fresh straw, again.

If I remember correctly, he started the whole thing by performing a magic trick, to illustrate his belief that magic is the basis of all art. I was thrilled beyond my wildest imagination because all I’d known at that point was that he was teaching a novel writing class. Now it turned out I was going to actually write a novel with one of the greatest novelists of all time! It was like finding out I was going to write a symphony with Beethoven.

Do remember the magic trick he performed?  

You know, I was thinking about that, and it doesn’t quite come clear. I’m pretty sure he made a coin disappear. I saw him do a couple of magic tricks over the years, and I guess they’ve blended together. Others in the class may remember better than I do. I guess it really doesn’t matter. A good storyteller forces you to suspend your sense of disbelief, right? I think that’s what he was getting at. Kesey hated boring, navel-gazing, overly psychological storytelling. He wanted writers to be magicians who dazzled him, not intellectuals shrinking everything into dust.

 

Bochner around the time he worked on Caverns. Photo by Ramona McCoy.

Bochner around the time he worked on Caverns. Photo by Ramona McCoy.

Was Kesey able to keep that magic alive as the class got underway and you all began to write?Ironically enough, in light of the fact that I ended up so “off the bus,” I felt there was an undertow of passivity in the class as a whole. This is actually quite a complex dynamic, since each person had their own background and their own context for seeing things. As far as I was concerned, I’d been a believer ever since reading Cuckoo’s Nest in high school. But I remember being surprised at a sort of bureaucratic mindset among the students, an over-concern with grades and how the class would affect their work in other classes and their chances at a future job.

But, like I say, we all had our own prisms. In my case, I had dropped my other classes and was concentrating on the novel writing class. For the others, Kesey’s was just one class on a full slate. In any case, there was a spectrum of engagement. Some people seemed quite skeptical of the counter-culture icon. It was the 80’s. Reagan was president. Nancy Reagan was telling people to just say no. But Kesey is a charismatic character and a genuinely big-hearted guy. He eventually won everybody over. Kesey was also a natural-born politico, and he consciously courted potential adversaries.

I read one time where Arthur Miller, the playwright, said charisma isn’t the ability to make people like you, it’s the ability to make people want you to like them. Kesey had this in spades. Kesey was the most Tom Sawyer-like person I ever met and most people who came in contact with him were only too happy to help him paint his fence.

I do think people held back a little. It wasn’t their ass on the line if the group novel failed. But it was so fun, just showing up at his house twice a week, perusing the buffet that Faye put out, drinking wine, and listening to Kesey’s tales of psychedelic and literary celebrity. How could one not be seduced by the glamour of it all?

Did you get the sense that Kesey’s ass was on the line? Did he/you have an audience watching before you even started?

Not really. I personally didn’t think he was in that much of a slump. As I said, he seemed in the pink to me. Still in his prime. I mean, Demon Box wasn’t Cuckoo’s Nest, but not much is.

It was only later, as I heard scuttlebutt, that I got the feeling he might have needed a boost. He kind of said as much right from the beginning, when the character he brought into the novel was a magician who’d lost his mojo. I had a feeling I was in for an interesting ride when his magician character, my reality-creating murderer, and Neil Lidstrom’s Doctor of Anthropology got rolled into our lead character, Dr. Charles Oswald Loach.

Loach’s entire journey into the cave is a redemption story. So, even though there was no overt discussion about Kesey’s ass being on the line, looking back it’s pretty clear. We also learned at some point that Kesey owed Viking a book (since he’d stopped writing Sailor Song). It had been a while since he’d had a big book, and 10 years since “Cuckoo’s Nest” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I do believe Kesey’s team at Sterling Lord Literistic wanted something to keep him in the public eye, though for the details of that you’d probably have to talk to David Stanford (Kesey’s editor at Viking). Amongst the rumors we heard was that Viking was adamant that Caverns was not to be that book. But there was a sense that Kesey needed something to jump-start him. He was still reeling from the loss of his son, Jed, a star wrestler at the University of Oregon, whose bus had gone off an icy road in the Cascade mountains. He told us many times that the grief of losing his son had almost killed him.

CavernsNovelWhen you got deep into the project, did you feel it would work? What was your outlook and what was the outlook like for the group?

There were three distinct phases in the writing of the book. The research, the first attempts at writing, and the final stage where we wrote each chapter together.

During the first attempts, it was hard to picture everything coming together. We had lots of great bull sessions in which people talked about the things that most interested them, things they’d like to write about. We all seemed to have a little piece of the zeitgeist that fascinated us, and they intersected in things like the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, the power of myth, the breakdown of traditional religions, the rise in the occult and a concept Kesey called The American Terror, a kind of black hole in the American Dream where we’d buried our guilt about what we did to the Indians, African-Americans, Hawaii, Guatemala, Vietnam and…you get the idea. This hole became our Secret Cave of American Ancients, and, for a while, all we knew about our novel was our characters were going to go down into it. Just figuring out this much took us a few months. Then, our individual attempts at writing the early chapters proved to be slow and disjointed as we each wrote in our own style.

But then, the idea of each person merely outlining a chapter, then all of us sitting around a table together, fleshing out the outline, and reading fresh pages into a tape recorder, seemed to work. We’d come out of these sessions with only a rough draft, but the act of being in the room together and writing for a pre-determined amount of time (about an hour) seemed to cut through a lot of the problems that we’d had. No longer could each of us procrastinate and pontificate and weave our little stylistic curlicues. We were responsible for moving the action from point A to point B and we’d have to do it front of each other immediately after writing.

This pressure seemed to bring out the best in us. We all knew how to play to the room. What we started to get were not deep Tolstoyan meditations on the human condition, but sitcom blocking and cartoon dialogue. All of a sudden, the most important skill you could have was to make people laugh. We were forced to actually entertain each other, and this really helped the story snap into shape. When you’re sitting alone in a room, getting a sentence jiggered just right seems important. When you’re telling a story to a group of people, nobody gives a shit how your sentences are jiggered. This approach may have doomed us to sitcom writing, but at least the thing was moving. There was always time to go back and fix things later. It was great, because writing became fun again.

Unfortunately, we discovered this method very late. Once we hit upon this way of working, a lot of chapters got written very quickly. Still, we were up against a deadline – the public reading we’d scheduled at Gerlinger Hall, on the U of O. We didn’t get to the final chapter until a few days before the reading, and it was very slap-dash and unsatisfying. But, all we needed was a placeholder. We figured we’d work it more after the reading.

It’s long been my feeling that we actually did come up with a great way of working together and that, if we did it again, we could come up with a very good book. Unfortunately, Caverns was our first attempt, and we didn’t know each other well enough to really hit on all cylinders. People seem to assume that because Caverns isn’t a very good book, the concept of group-writing doesn’t work. If Caverns had taken place in private and we’d had the sense (and the leisure) to rip it up, throw it away, chalk it up to experience, and start over, I think we could have produced something special. Of course there was no time for that. The class ended just as we figured out how to write together. Caverns ended up being a blueprint for a great book rather than being a great book itself.

How did the deadline of the public reading and the hype around it affect the ending of the book?

Sometime in the spring, we got word from Viking that the book was going to be published. We had not finished it, but apparently whatever needs to happen with the marketing gods in NY had happened, and they had given the green light to Kesey’s latest project. Then reporters started showing up from Rolling Stone, from Us Magazine, from national TV shows. It really sunk in that this thing was gonna happen. And Kesey was masterful at donning his top hat and putting on a show. He always had good one-liners ready for the reporters; nice, mystical, aw-shucks koans delivered in that soft Oregon accent that hinted he knew something about America that nobody else did.

What’s that old cliché? Nothing focuses a person’s mind like the prospect of hanging? That would overstate the level of my focus, but I did feel personal responsibility for getting the end of the book right. I had been given the job of writing the outline for the last chapter, and I spent a lot of time ruminating about what was going to happen to our characters trapped in the bowels of the cave.

The way I saw it, Loach had a lot to answer for. Although we had treated him as a lovable con man throughout the book, the fact was, he was still a con man and had organized this trek down into the cave for purposes of his own glory. He knew the “ancient” cave paintings were fake (his brother had painted them). Surely the amateurish nature of the hieroglyphics Dogeye had slapped on the walls would reveal Loach and his theories of an ancient American civilization to be a fraud. Now the group was stuck in that cave and it looked like they were all going to die. For what? For a con man’s vanity? It seemed to me that the only way to redeem Loach was for him to repent, to see the error of his ways, to take responsibility for the lies that had led to the groups’ immanent death.

And so I wrote a soliloquy for Loach in which he was his own most perfervid prosecutor. He hauled himself into the docket of his own mind, there in the darkness of the cave, delineating the details of every crime he charged himself with. One after the other, his deeds flashed before him in the dark – the lying, the self-promotion, the avarice, the betrayal – as well as the effect of his actions upon the people who had believed in him. It was a thorough horse-whipping Loach delivered upon his own being and a kind of introspective writing that had heretofore been nowhere in our farcical romp.

And then, after I’d spilled Loach’s confession all over the page and he was ready to meet his maker, then…

What?

For the life of me, I could not see what happened to our characters stuck in this tomb-like cave. I racked my brain looking for a way out. Did someone discover a crack that led to a shaft of light? Too corny. Did someone come down and rescue them? Did one of our quirky characters reveal a previously undisclosed expertise in spelunking rescue? Did they all just die? No scenario I tried seemed to work. Everything seemed forced and trite and contrived. I knew that every satisfying book I’d ever read had an ending that was both totally unexpected and, in retrospect, totally inevitable. There had to be a solution to this puzzle. But I could not figure out what it was.

And so, after many restless days and nights, I brought my outline for the last chapter of the book to the second-to-last class before the reading.

And it didn’t have an ending.

I arrived at class feeling like I’d failed. Whatever the answer to the puzzle was going to be, it was going to have to be discovered by the group as a whole, because I had struck out. I was disappointed in myself, feeling I’d let down both Kesey and the group, but maybe the answer was in the group mind itself. Maybe that was the key to ending the book. It couldn’t come from one person pacing up and down in the isolation of his own darkened room. Maybe we were meant to discover our ending together, in the act of writing. Maybe the meaning of our group novel could only be found in the act of group writing itself.

So, I did my thing. I laid out what I had. Nobody seemed overly concerned that there was no climactic ending. We simply divvied up the outline, assigned ourselves chunks of plot to flesh out and got to work. Kesey took the end part.

We wrote for our usual period of about an hour, then read our parts into the tape recorder. When we got to the end, all eyes were on Kesey. Instead of some great piece of writing that made the story fall into place like tumblers in a lock, all he wrote was, all of a sudden, the top of the cave crumbled away, and there was Dogeye, lowering a rope to get everybody out.

This was an ending so lame, so amateurish, that I’d discarded it from the very beginning of my rumination. I was flabbergasted, gob-smacked, amazed, disappointed. When people questioned the unsatisfactory nature of this non-ending, Kesey brushed it aside, quoting Joseph Campbell saying that the meaning is always in the journey, never in the destination. Yeah…but…God can’t just….pull the top off the cave…and let everybody out! That’s cheating! That’s like how a fifth-grader would end a story! Houdini can’t announce he’s gonna escape from a trunk at the bottom of the ocean and then just emerge from a trunk onstage and say “it’s the journey not the destination!” Nobody’s gonna buy that!

“Hush,” said Kesey. “We’ll fix it next class.”

Well, OK, you’re the famous writer, I said to myself. I was actually relieved. The burden of ending the book was no longer on my shoulders. Kesey said we’d fix it in the next class, we’d fix it in the next class.

The next class came, and I was eager to get to work. I was ready for Mighty Kesey to step to the plate and hit the ball out of the park. I couldn’t wait to see how he, and we as a group, would pull it off.

But instead of getting to work on the writing, Kesey prowled around like a nervous animal. He obviously had been working on something and it was weighing heavily on his mind. As we settled into our chairs, Kesey began to launch into the most inspired pep talk I’d ever heard. I mean, in movies, in books, from my old high school coaches, I’d never heard anything as inspired and impassioned and just plain right-on as this. It thrilled me to the marrow of my bones. It was the Fuck You to God speech that he was later to immortalize in the Paris Review interview. He had clearly given it a lot of thought. Maybe even stayed up all night, composing this battle cry for his troops. He started out by saying writing is a noble calling, even if you’re only writing menus, and it beats flipping burgers at McDonald’s! His face turned red, his arms flailed, and he said, “I want you guys to be the winners! That’s what Cowley taught me and McMurtry and Bob Stone at Stanford: Somebody’s gonna create the culture for the next 50 years and I want it to be you! Don’t just dream about it, don’t stick a manuscript in a drawer and say, Well, I gave it a try, maybe someday I’ll give it another go. Do it! Grab the brass ring!” Then he said we were all good writers, better than him, even, and because of that, some day God was gonna appear to us in all his Godly glory. He said stuff about how His nipples were gonna be like shiny red raspberries, and how he was gonna have a long beard and robes and all that, how he was gonna look just like Charlton Heston and he was gonna command us to write advertisements for him. Don’t do it! Kesey said. Don’t ever kiss any ass, no matter how big and white and smooth it is! Then he talked about Nelson Algren, how Algren had said the job of the writer is to pull the judge down into the dock, to make the high and mighty feel what it’s like to be down low. And then, he raised one big pink ham of a hand, stuck out his middle finger and said, When there’s injustice in the world, you gotta say, Fuck you, God! Fuck you and the Old Testament you rode in on! That’s the job of the writer in America!

(Kesey’s refers to this speech in his Paris Review interview, though Kesey’s reporting of the timing and purpose of the speech varies from what Bochner tells us here. Kesey says he gave the speech in order to protect the “Rogue Reader” after the public event.)

I was dazzled. One of the mottos of our ex-carny Dr. Loach was, “You Pays Your Money, You Takes Your Chances.” Well, I was ready to take my chances on Ken Kesey. Whatever he was selling, I was buying. He had me, hook, line and sinker. That speech seemed to sum up everything I’d ever learned from every writer I’d ever devoured, from Vonnegut to Tolstoy to William Burroughs. I don’t know what other people were thinking, but I was ready to go out on the field and hit somebody.

After he finished the speech, there was little time to do any actual writing. Besides, the speech had been so big, so emphatic, so over-the-top, that re-arranging words on pieces of paper hardly seemed like the appropriate action. Certainly there must be a hill to take! A beach to storm! An enemy to attack! But…no. Kesey the Elder had spent the night peering into the akashic records, plucked out the teaching he wanted to impart to his students, to all humanity! That was that. We went over the chapter. We pushed words around. Kesey wrote a Sometimes A Great Notion-like epilogue to end the book and tie the loose threads together.

But that lame non-ending was still there, throbbing like a hemorrhoid at the base of my brain.

I couldn’t believe it.

Class ended, people drifted away, and that was it. The next time we’d see each other would be at the reading.

When you say “Kesey was masterful at putting on his top hat and putting on a show,” you mean that both literally and figuratively, right? What happened the night of the reading? What was the scene like and how did it go down?

Ken Kesey was essentially a ringmaster. Writing books was just one of his feats of derring-do. Now, for your entertainment, ladies and gentlemen, watch The Great Writer pen the greatest novel of his generation! Now watch as he puts his head in the mouth of a Man-Eating Lion! Ken Kesey could have been an Olympic gold medal wrestler or president of the United States.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day he’d announced he was going to be shot out of a cannon. In a sense, he was shot out of a cannon, if you think about his adventures with LSD. In another age, Kesey might have claimed to have found golden tablets shown to him by The Angel Moroni and started a new religion. But he would have had a sense of humor about it.

The reading was fun. It had that Kesey sense of showmanship. We all dressed up in 30′s attire, lined up across the front of the room, getting up one-by-one to read a chunk of the chapter we’d been responsible for. The manuscript was in a wooden box on a table next to the podium. Kesey was resplendent in top hat and tails. I don’t know what kind of 30′s character I thought I was portraying, but I wore a frilly tuxedo shirt I’d found at The Goodwill, a tuxedo jacket with a red rose in the lapel and faded black jeans, ripped at the knee. These were also the days when I had a Jew-fro and a shaggy goatee. I guess I looked like a rogue.

Anyway, the event started to seem more like a high school play than a literary reading. We were up there in front of our friends and family. That was the big deal, not the book we’d written. After the initial charm of our costumes wore off, there was nothing for the audience to focus on except the story. And, to put it bluntly, the story wasn’t that good. The characters were whacky, the dialogue was old-timey, the young writers were fresh-faced and winning, but nothing really connected. There was a certain passion missing and in its’ stead was a kind of smirk. Maybe what was on display was the impossibility of writing a group novel. No one seemed that invested. Obviously, this book was full of good ideas and interesting concepts and the best intentions, but it dragged.

When I got up to read the last chapter, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But my mind was still burning with the coals of Kesey’s sermon. When I got to the podium, instead of reaching into the wooden box to take out the chapter we’d written in class, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the pages I’d written. I just couldn’t see myself obediently mouthing words I knew were lame. Let me at least give it a shot in my own words and see if maybe something jelled. I thought I was doing what Kesey wanted me to do.

Kesey has referred to what I wrote as “tying the story up in a Buddhistic bag.” Not true. There were a couple of lines from the Diamond Sutra, but that was just the amateur Orientalist Dr. Loach condemning himself with quotes from The Buddha. The con man also pulled some Nietzsche quotes out of his ass to punish himself with. Like I said, it was a self-laceration – and as far as what it was tied up in, it was much more of a biblical bag than Buddhist. Vanity of vanities, that kind of thing.

But, whatever. I’m not claiming that what I wrote was a great piece of literature, but it did raise the ante. The way Loach reproached himself in that soliloquy was a sudden, unexpected turn, and it raised the tension in the story. It was probably ridiculously out of place in our light-hearted romp. But all of a sudden, no one was getting a trophy for just being awesome. The spirit of Yahweh had entered Gerlinger Hall and he was not forgiving anybody for their sins. Dr. Charles Oswald Loach had just tried himself, found himself guilty, and condemned himself to hell.

After I finished reading, the room was quiet. I dropped the pages I’d pulled from my pocket into the manuscript box and went back to my seat trying to get an inkling of what the others thought of my piece. No one would look at me. Kesey got up and read the soaring epilogue he’d written. The audience clapped and cheered and it was over. Gerlinger Hall dissolved into a whirl of happy after-theater chatter, laughing, back-slapping, hugs and congratulations. I kept looking around for some form of affirmation that I’d done okay. No one would speak to me, except for Hal “Highwater” Powers, who came up and said, “Where did that come from? That was great!” He’d missed the last class and had no idea what was going on. I still have a soft spot for Hal to this day, because on that night, when I was to learn what it is to be despised, he was kind to me.

So, you read something no one had ever seen? Was this meant as an act of defiance? Was it perceived that way?

I was a naive kid. I believed in the book. I believed in Kesey. I believed it mattered that we were about to publish a book that wasn’t good. I made a mistake. It was a dumb kid mistake. I thought I was being the hero Kesey wanted me to be.

As far as I was concerned, reading my own piece wasn’t an act of defiance. It was an act of faith. I should have confided in Kesey beforehand that I was worried about the lack of an ending. I could have told him what I was going to do. But, for some reason, I couldn’t approach him. I was scared of what he might say. In the moment, when I reached into my pocket and read my own words instead of Kesey’s, it was as if I was Billy Bibbit, screwing up the courage to be the person McMurphy wanted him to be.

Yes, I’d broken the rule about not working on the book alone. But, I told myself a Ken Kesey book is not about following rules. It is about telling the truth.

And that’s what I thought I was doing. It was stupid. It was arrogant. It was wrong. But that’s what I thought I was doing.

I thought that Kesey and the others, even if they didn’t like what I’d written, would at least understand the spirit I’d written it in.

That was the stupidest thing of all. Of course it was perceived as an act of defiance. Any time you’ve got a Jesus figure, you’re gonna develop a Judas. That’s simply the molecule that forms in the presence of certain archetypes, sure as oxygen atoms are gonna find hydrogen atoms to bond with to make water.

Years later, there’s general agreement that the book is a failure. It kind of makes me laugh to read how blithely my fellow authors now dismiss Caverns as a bad book, as if they knew all along, and were just along for the ride.

Because, at the time, we were in a Kesey-enforced bubble of positivity. The book was gonna be a best-seller! It was gonna be made into a movie! Why, it might even win another Oscar! With Kesey, you were always either on the bus or off the bus. And there was no surer way to find yourself off the bus than to raise doubts about whether the book was good or not. Ironically, I was always one of the biggest supporters of the book. I was a believer. So no one was more surprised than I was when all of a sudden I found myself sucked into the vortex of Kesey’s shadow.

How did being “off the bus” manifest itself? What happened after the reading?

I’m a performer (a singer/songwriter) so I’m well acquainted with the euphoria that comes after a theatrical performance. Whether the show is good or bad, you just feel alive and full of energy.

The night after the Caverns reading was no exception. But it didn’t take long for me to realize the machinery of my universe was out of whack. Though friends in the audience slapped me on the back with approving words and smiles, none of my co-writers would look at me (except for Hal). Everybody was gathering at Kesey’s house on 15th street for the cast party. I figured I’d go. I didn’t feel bad about what I had done. I had my own euphoria going about having been brave enough to follow my literary instincts. Somebody had to speak up! Maybe we could discuss the whole thing and come up with a better ending.

Kesey’s parties were like something out of Gatsby. He had an instinct for it. Whether on the farm in Pleasant Hill, or in town, Kesey’s parties were the place to be. When my girlfriend, Marianne, and I arrived at the party, the house was lit up in the June night, the front door was flung open and people were milling all around, drinking and laughing. We made our way through the crowd and went inside. Kesey was holding court at the kitchen table still wearing his ringmaster’s attire, collar pulled open, a drink in his hand and a big, sweaty smile on his face. Proud papa bear with his cubs, in that beautiful warm kitchen light.

I wanted to join them, but they were in full tilt mode, so I just hung around the periphery browsing the buffet table. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I moseyed into the scene in the kitchen and finally took my chance. “So? What did you think of my piece?” I said.

The laughter stopped. “No,” Kesey said. “Un-uh. The guy fucks up the whole reading, and now he wants to talk about it? No. We’re not gonna talk about it. We’re never gonna talk about it.”

After this, it’s all so much like a movie, there’s no use even writing it down. People snickered, they laughed, they looked away, I tried to make a joke, I turned to run, stumbled into the French onion dip, spilled it all over myself and limped out of the room. I wandered around the party for a while still not comprehending the exile I’d entered. Finally, Marianne came up to me with a concerned look on her face. “We’ve gotta get out of here,” she said. “These people hate you.”

So, blah, blah, blah, she took me home, I kept wanting to talk, she kept hushing me. It’s all turned into one of those Southern Gothic movies in my mind, with Orson Wells playing Big Daddy Kesey and I’m Tony Franciosa, the wastrel son begging for his father’s approval. For me, it was Shakespearian, Greek, Gothic, Epic, whatever word you want to choose. Tragic. I loved the guy, wanted to please him, and now I was just a non-person. Nothing. Off the bus.

Part of me was amazed that I could have pissed him off that much. It was just a couple of paragraphs, after all. Five minutes at the end of a performance. It wasn’t as if I’d stolen the galleys and slipped a different ending into the printed manuscript. The book was still gonna be whatever he and the group wanted it to be. I clung to the idea that Kesey would ultimately understand my motivations, mete out some suitable punishment, and find a way to integrate me back into the group. One thing I knew about him was that he was a kind man, and that his impulse towards generosity of spirit usually won out.

But any inkling that this thing was going to blow over disappeared three days later, when I showed up at Kesey’s house for the next class. Kesey wasn’t there. Instead, he left a Whiteboard propped up in the middle of the room with a message scrawled on it that said The Rogue Reader had pissed him off so deeply he had to go off into the woods and be alone for a few days.

That’s when I knew this thing wasn’t going to go away. Now it had a name.

After this, did you ever talk to Kesey again? The other students? How did you get through the rest of the academic year and the book launch and appearances?

Yes, I saw Kesey quite frequently. And I saw the other students throughout the rest of that summer as we did final edits on the galleys. I was marginalized. No one ever said anything, but I think it was one of those situations where everybody expects the schmuck to eventually get the message and stop showing up. But, I wasn’t about to stop showing up. I felt I was as connected to the book as anyone else.

About a year later, the book was published. It was fun. There was a review in the New York Times Book Review. There was probably more attention paid to where Kesey was at as a cultural figure, than there was to the merits of the book. I think most of the literati thought of Caverns as another one of Kesey’s merry pranks.

I raised my daughter in Eugene, so I was part of that community, and I’d see Kesey from time to time. I always showed up for his events. He’d tell me he’d heard me on the radio. I longed to heal the rift between us, but you know, there’s that guy thing that makes it hard to talk about anything. I wrote him a letter apologizing, trying to explain my motives for what I did. I never heard back. In the end, I thought we had both just let it go.

It wasn’t until he died in November of 2001 that I found out it wasn’t that simple.

After Kesey’s funeral, I heard that Kesey’s official biographer, Robert Faggen, was looking for me. He wanted to meet The Rogue Reader.

So we met. Faggen had been the interviewer for Kesey’s Paris Review interview. I had never heard of The Paris Review, but Faggen informed me that a Paris Review interview is a big deal. It’s where the pantheon of great writers publish their definitive interviews, the ones in which their legacies are established. Hemingway, Kerouac, Miller, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, they’re all in there. Kesey had wrapped up his interview with the story of one of his students from Caverns, who’d been a disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and had tried to sneak Buddhist dogma into the book. Kesey and the class had punished the writer by sending him into exile. Then he proceeded to use the story as a cautionary tale about what a writer should not be.

Then he finished off the interview with a version of the speech he’d given the class before the reading, the one that had inspired me to re-write the ending. It was epic stuff. It had been epic stuff when it inspired a class of young writers in 1988. It was epic stuff to finish off a Paris Review interview with in 1995.

And it was epic stuff to leave as a permanent legacy:

“The writer’s job is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and white and appealing. The writer’s job is to say fuck you to God.”

I have no beef with Kesey’s message. I have no beef with Kesey as a mythologizer. Kesey was a myth-maker. That’s what he did, he was great at it and his greatest achievement was his own myth. But I was no shill. What I did, I did out of conviction. I was not writing some guru’s advertising for him.

The idea that I was a Rajneeshee secret agent was so bizarre I had to laugh. It was like being accused of being a member of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I pictured myself talking into my shoe, getting orders from Mr. Big at KAOS headquarters: “Must…Insert…Sutra…Into…Book…”

Kesey claimed in the interview that he gave the fuck-you-to-God speech after the reading in Gerlinger Hall, as a lesson for his young writers. He said the class had wanted to string me up – and that the speech was Kesey’s way of making peace.

Well, there’s myth.

And then there’s bullshit.

It fit his story to make himself the peace-maker, and, after all, I was just an unknown kid. Who was gonna know that Kesey never actually made peace at all? That the naïve young college student was simply left to twist in the wind of the “literary Coventry” the class had exiled him to?

For an All-American literary hero like Kesey to leave a legacy of saying fuck you to God was big stuff. You don’t go on Charlie Rose and discuss the issues of the day with that kind of banter. Kesey was consciously choosing to go out as a revolutionary. That lifted middle finger at the end of the Paris Review interview was the cherry on top of the Kesey Myth.

So what if a few facts had to be twisted around to make the story play? That’s how magic works, you divert the audience’s attention, a little sleight-of-hand here, a little razzle-dazzle there, next thing you know you’re pulling a quarter out of some rube’s ear.

Faggen said Kesey had adapted the story of the Rogue Reader as a permanent feature of the lectures he was giving at college campuses around the country. He asked me, How does it feel to be infamous?

It feels all right, actually. I know the truth. I don’t mind being the rube in Kesey’s magic act. Kesey saw a way to turn real life into a parable. And guess what? The Rogue Reader is a pretty good parable.

But not as good as mine. Mine’s called The Boy Who Said Fuck You to God.

And mine’s true.

Why are you telling this story? Why not tell me to go to hell? How do you expect the rest of O.U. Levon will respond once this is posted?

As far as why I told you my story, because you asked. I originally wrote up my experience to explain the Rogue Reading to Faggen. Because he asked. As I told you right from the beginning, I will never participate in a Kesey hit piece. But I think an honest portrait of him could be quite interesting. I truly did love the guy, but he could be a bully sometimes. Once, he told me he thought the solution to the problems in the Middle East was to put LSD in the water supply.

He also said the most true thing I’ve ever heard anybody say about the state of the world. He said we’re all volunteers. Meaning, we can just get up and walk out of the nut house any time we want to.

Why didn’t I tell you to go to hell? I don’t know. You sounded sincere. You were interested. So I thought I’d share a story I thought was truly interesting.

And how do I expect the rest of O.U. Levon to react to my interview?

I expect them to think I’m a pain in the ass for not going along with their code of silence, for not just taking my punishment and shutting up. I doubt whether they’ve given me much of a thought over the last 25 years. To them, I’m sure, my story is just an unpleasant eddy in an otherwise groovy trip down memory lane. And I think they’d prefer to stick to Kesey’s decree not to talk about it. Ever.

Actually, there’s one other way the rest of O.U. Levon might react.

My story may open a floodgate of other stories that don’t necessarily burnish the Kesey Myth.

That would make me sad.

Even I prefer to remember the Nordic god who smelled of fresh straw.

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Neil Lidstrom is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey Co-author Recalls Their Year Writing Together

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.

Neil Lidstrom’s interview is the sixth I’ve published. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting and provide links to the other interviews.

Lidstrom novel

What is your life like now? Are you still writing?

My life is at some kind of peak. My wife, Joan, is in nursing school, so she’s wrapped up in that and always has amazing new stories. We live with my two-year old grandson, Gabriel, who is a wonderboy and a joy to behold. And the nice thing about grandparenting is that his mother, Sierra, is always there for the cleanup and tantrums and serious impulse-control work. All four of us moved to Portland a couple of years ago, bought a house, and settled in. It’s been a good midlife adventure. I’m a tech writer, working very comfortably from home, for decent, regular pay.

Writing? Hey, I write like mad, hours a day, thousands and thousands of words. My medium is the business email. It doesn’t have to rhyme or make sense. It’s the perfect vessel for my soul-utterances.

I’ve never been able to get any fiction published, other than what I uploaded myself to Amazon, and I’ve never been able to get anybody to read that, but hey, wait a minute, maybe this will help: Bells, Beads, Chants, Chalk – 99 cents! I won’t say this book is the best value you’ll ever see for 99 cents, because who knows what other unbelievable bargains you’ve kicked out of the grass in the past. But you’ve probably wasted 99 cents on worse things. Almost certainly. Give it a shot!

What do you remember most about the process of writing a book with thirteen other people?

Collaborative writing is how I went on to spend my working life. Tech writing is all about hashing things out down to the comma in emails and meetings. There’s often a tiny amount of personal investment, so it can hurt a bit to see your comma removed, but the pain is pretty limited. Just in case you’re the type who throws away your user guides with the shrink-wrap still on, I’ll let you know that the resulting product can be a bit dry.

Now here’s the thing about the class: I missed a big part of it. I showed up every day, wrote my little bit, read it out, and then listened to everybody else’s little bit. By that point, things being what they were, I was somewhat lit with beer, wine, and whatever pot was circling the table, and I had 80 miles to drive. What can I say? I liked having dinner at home and I loved those drives. Two or three hours has always been my limit for large groups of people anyway. So I think I was generally the first to leave, and what I missed was the revision process. I have no insight into that and don’t know how it worked.

In the class writing sessions, I really tried to write stuff that would grab everybody and haul them my way. I did care about the book. Especially at the start of the class, I remember thinking constantly about the characters and certain scenes. I wanted the characters to be the people I thought they were, doing the things I wanted them to do. In other words, I never managed to subsume my ego in the larger project. But the tone of the book changed with every writer, and that disoriented me. By the end of the class I was pretty disengaged, and just enjoying the class and the wacky personalities. A book needs a tone or style, and to me it seems like that’s the first thing you have to establish. But in the Caverns project, there was no tone. I think that’s the key flaw in the collaborative writing scheme.

My opinion only, but none of us individually wrote very well in class. Kesey didn’t write anything great in those 15-minute sessions. And then I had the sense that all our individual contributions were ironed away. What I took away from the class is that collaboration isn’t the way to create lively, engaging writing.

Neil Lidstrom with his wife Joan, step-daughter Sierra, and grandson Gabriel.

Neil Lidstrom with his wife Joan, step-daughter Sierra, and grandson Gabriel.

What did you learn from writing Caverns?

I learned about the challenges of working on an intellectual project in a group. I don’t think my writing got any better that year. I don’t remember writing anything of my own during that time. But I think I learned a lot about working in a group – how to ignore bad ideas politely, endure frustration, and enjoy the company of geniuses, wildfolk, and ambitious young artists.

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

Kesey remained a mysterious figure to me. He was one of these magnetic-personality-type guys you hear about. If he walked into a room where 30 people were carrying on separate conversations, the conversations might not stop, but everybody would be looking at Kesey and listening for whatever he had to say. I guess lots of teachers can do that in the classroom, but Kesey couldn’t clear his throat without people thinking deeply about what he might have meant.

One interesting thing about Kesey is that I never saw him shut anybody down over anything. I remember an illustrative scene at his house once: there were frequently strange people around, and this particular guy I saw this once and never again – a basic crazy longhair, possibly with twigs in his beard. Anyway, he worked Kesey hard for about 20 minutes, trying to wheedle startup cash for a scheme in which black bears would be poached in Canada, and their gall bladders sold on the Chinese quack medicine market. Kesey just kept giggling and listening, then finally got up and drifted off. I don’t think Ken ever said a word to the guy, but he also let him talk all he wanted. Maybe Ken was auditioning him for a short story.

Kesey could also put people into awkward positions. Once he loaded all 12 of us into a closed delivery van and took us for a drive. In the novel, the characters take a long road trip in a bus with sealed-shut windows. Anyway, we took in the experience, discussed our sensations, debated the effect all this darkness and lurching should have on the plot. Nobody threw up. Then we all stumbled back into the light and found ourselves in the parking lot of a strip club, which caused some members of the group serious political distress. But it was either go in and drink beer or sit out in the cold.

Ken did not always come off as a literary genius. Once he told us about a short story he’d written but not published: a middle-aged man shows up at a fraternity after his son, who was a member, has died working on a construction project over the summer. The son has been killed in a dynamite blast. The father brings out a photo album to show the fraternity brothers baby pictures, school pictures, and then athletic photos of his son, who was a champion javelin thrower. The last picture in the album is a dismembered arm, all that remained after the blast. Kesey said, “That’s when the brothers realize that his arm was the only thing that meant anything to them. All they’d known about him was his javelin throwing”. There was a long silence, and then somebody said, ‘The father has a photo of his son’s blown off arm in the album?’ It was uncomfortable to listen to, because the story sounded so awkward and bizarre, and also seemed pretty clearly to address his own son’s death. Of course, any story can sound goofy when you summarize it. I’d like to read that story.

In every conversation I had with Ken, he would bring someone else in. If you asked him a question, he would put it to a larger group. It seemed like all conversations turned into group conversations.

Kesey took us on trips the way your parents took you on trips. It was really great. We all piled into his brother’s RV and headed over the mountains to explore Skeleton Cave. We had ice cream at the SnoCap drive-in in Sisters, Oregon. We got down in the cave and we all turned out our lights. Another time we went over to the coast and had a party at his house in Yachats. I was pretty drunk and missed whole swaths of this one, but I do remember oysters cooking in the fireplace, opening one after another in the heat.

He was kind of a crackpot. He had some really funny ideas, and he knew and acknowledged that they were funny. He told us once that if you believe in a spiritual world, you can’t stop at a dignified theology. You have to let in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, too. If you believe, you have to believe in everything. I often had trouble following Ken’s reasoning, but he was a mesmerizing man.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

Ken said once that Caverns was as good as plenty of books that get published (he may have compared it favorably to a Jacqueline Susan novel). I’ve never read a Jacqueline Susan novel, and I never actually read all the way to the end of Caverns, so I can’t say. Caverns is pink slime – it’s shaped like a book and has pages and words, but you wouldn’t want to read it. Maybe he was convinced it was better than that, but he had a lot invested in it.

Why do you think Kesey decided to teach the class?

I don’t really know myself why Kesey decided to teach the class. I think he said that he wanted to recreate the kind of writing community he found at Stanford early in his career, but I can’t imagine it took him more than a class or two to figure out that he didn’t have a Robert Stone or Larry McMurtry in Eugene. Another difference is that Kesey and that amazing group at Stanford weren’t goofing around with a collaborative project. They were each writing their own great first novels. I think Ken was mainly interested in the experiment of group writing. And he wasn’t just a guy who dreamed up cockamamie schemes. He followed through on them. He kept at it for a year, continually tinkering with the process and the different personalities in the group, popping another new zig or zag on us nearly every week. He was an impractical project kind of guy. He enjoyed dreaming up hare-brained schemes for groups of people. He opened his house to us and gave us the majority of his time and attention for a year. We were all up for it. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

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