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.
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)
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.
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.