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Novelist Ken Kesey Has Flown the Cuckoo's Nest and Given Up Tripping for Farming

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The movie version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson has been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But Ken Kesey, who wrote the novel about life in an Oregon mental institution 13 years ago, isn’t grateful to Hollywood, even if the publicity has boosted paperback sales to well over 4 million. So far, in fact, Kesey has refused even to see the movie.

“When you’re insulted, you must squawk,” Kesey proclaims. His squawk has taken the form of a lawsuit demanding $869,000 in damages from the film’s producers, owners and distributors. The alleged insult is a complicated one. Kesey sold the movie rights to Cuckoo’s Nest for $18,000 in 1962 to actor Kirk Douglas, who eventually turned the property over to his son, Michael. He and his co-producer, Saul Zaentz, offered Kesey $10,000 to do the screenplay. Kesey wrote it—as he had the book—from the viewpoint of the schizophrenic Indian chief Bromden. The moviemakers wanted to tell the story, however, through another inmate, Randle McMurphy. Kesey returned to the typewriter but says he was not paid for subsequent rewrites, and furthermore claims that he never consented to the use of his name in connection with the film which finally emerged.

Cuckoo’s Nest opened in Eugene, Oreg., near Kesey’s home, in January. Kesey’s mother, a resident of Eugene, went to the opening, thinking, “This is gonna be a biggie.” Her son, of course, boycotted the opening, but earlier in the day he called Dean Brooks, head of the Oregon state mental hospital where the movie had been filmed. Kesey asked him to make an announcement at the screening: Would those in attendance send just a dime out to Kesey at Pleasant Hill farm “to help us sue those sumbitches?” Brooks, who played the role of hospital director in the movie, declined. That afternoon a Eugene TV crew came out and photographed Kesey sawing wood. The evening itself was marred twice by breaks in the film and by a bomb threat from a man who complained that Cuckoo’s Nest was a disgrace to the mentally ill. The threat temporarily emptied the theater.

In 1959, at a VA hospital in California, Kesey volunteered as a subject for early unpublicized experiments on the effects of LSD. That experience, plus a subsequent job there as night attendant in a psychiatric ward, enabled him to write convincingly about the fictional Randle McMurphy and the other cuckoos nesting in the pages of his first novel.

A more celebrated brush with bedlam was Kesey’s life with the Merry Pranksters—the name given a group of young drug-takers he teamed up with in the mid-’60s. In the Pranksters’ short-circuited philosophy of life, a person was “either on the bus or off the bus”—a doper or a drag. No one was more emphatically “on the bus” than Kesey himself, who owned the actual 1939 International Harvester vehicle in which the Pranksters tripped across the U.S.A. (Tom Wolfe described the bizarre journey of these psychedelic sharpshooters in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)

But things change. These days Kesey, now 40, has turned from raising Cain to raising cattle and is a member of the PTA in Pleasant Hill, a small farming community five miles from Eugene.

A recent visitor finds Kesey, in greasy coveralls, heaving bales of hay to his 30 head of beef. One, a crazy Angus steer named Sonofabitch, has broken through a casually constructed fence to reach the lush grass near some blueberry bushes. Soon the animal returns, bawling, and farmer Kesey watches the bucolic scene with apparent contentment. He signals his 9-year-old daughter, Sunshine, to drive the Ford tractor back toward the converted red barn that is their home. He chases down a calf named Frivol. Then, cradling the long-legged creature in his powerful arms, Kesey runs laughing after the tractor.

The three other Kesey children, Shannon, 15, Zane, 14, and Jed, 12, are inside the house with Faye, Kesey’s wife of almost 20 years. From deep in his pockets he fishes out a handful of the hemp twine used to tie up the hay, and the children set about adding it to a huge ball on the doorstep. “The Guinness Book of Records says the biggest ball of string in the world is 11 feet in diameter,” reports Kesey with unconcealed designs on first place.

Later, Zane and Jed practice wrestling with their father on the huge mat that covers the floor of the living room. For supper the boys pass up spaghetti, nibbling only lettuce in anticipation of tomorrow’s wrestling weigh-in at school. Kesey helps Sunshine with her homework, rolls himself a joint and settles back for a little TV and some conversation.

“The land is the hardest university I’ve ever attended,” he says. “Take the trouble I’ve been having with my cattle. With the same bull breeding, the calves become weaker and weaker. Things are the stiffest when you enroll in the land.”

Faye Kesey, who is regarded as a near saint by friends and neighbors, confirms her husband’s evaluation of farm life. She is exhausted, her wrists and shoulders throbbing, and she retires to the bedroom. At midnight almost everyone is asleep and, besides the family, that includes the bull and cows, the horses and sheep, three cats, three dogs, an ostentation of peacocks and a blue-and-yellow macaw named Roomiago.

But Ken Kesey is awake. He ambles out to a small shed where the farmer moonlights as a writer. He warms himself beside a wood-burning stove and reads from a collection of James Joyce’s letters. Then, finding encouragement in a toss of his I Ching coins, he moves over to the IBM Selectric and begins to tap out another installment of a seven-part novel being published under the byline of its heroine, “Grandma Whittier,” in a magazine that Kesey publishes. He calls the magazine Spit in the Ocean. Its rotating editorship currently has befallen LSD prophet Timothy Leary in his San Diego prison cell.

With the exception of an anthology of his and his friends’ literary “leftovers” called Kesey’s Garage Sale (Viking, 1973), the author has given nearly all his recent output to out-of-the-mainstream publications. Last November at a poetry conference in Santa Cruz, Calif., he read a section of an unpublished long novel called The Demon Box to great applause. It is about cattle raising. Stewart Brand, creator of the celebrated Whole Earth catalogs, was promised an excerpt for his CoEvolution Quarterly for $150. But the perpetually cashless Kesey became miffed at Brand’s refusal to lend an occasional $5 for a tank of gasoline. Furthermore, Kesey says he heard that Brand was passing the word that the author was just playing broke, that he could turn $50,000 in New York at any moment. Kesey decided to publish in the big time again, and for $2,500 he allowed Esquire to run the excerpt in its March issue.

It is morning before Kesey walks back to the house and his bed. The kids are huddled at the window watching for the school bus.

Kesey is descended from cowboy stock that came to Oregon to raise dairy cattle. He distinguished himself as a wrestler at the University of Oregon, took a stab at acting in Los Angeles and wound up in the graduate writing program at Stanford University. Malcolm Cowley, the critic and literary historian, was in residence during Kesey’s time there, and he discovered One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Published in 1962, it was an instant sensation. Kesey followed two years later with Sometimes a Great Notion, a saga of a logging family in the Pacific Northwest. This book was made into a film starring Paul Newman and Henry Fonda which Kesey didn’t much like either.

As his fame spread and the money began to pour in, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters began their outrageous journey in July 1964. The cross-continental pilgrimage came to a shuddering halt when Kesey split to Mexico in 1967. He returned and was convicted of possession of marijuana in California and sentenced to five months in a work camp.

Incarceration seems not to have lessened the author’s enthusiasm for pot, but it did get him writing again—a wild jail narrative, hand-illustrated but never honed into publishable form.

In 1969 Kesey went to England to work with the Beatles-owned Apple Records, a project involving albums of authors reading their own work. When it ultimately fell through, Kesey and a friend took a farewell drive through Holland in Kesey’s white Cadillac. “In downtown Amsterdam,” Kesey recalls, “we drove right past Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and all we did was tip our hats.” Then Kesey went back to the farm his brother had been tending all through the ’60s.

There was one final temptation to leave: the Woodstock rock festival in the summer of ’69. But as his bus filled up, Kesey decided not to go along. When those who went without him returned from the East, they were confronted by a sign Kesey had set up in the driveway. It said, simply: “No!” The party was over.

Kesey subsequently threw the Pranksters off his property to fend for themselves, though some, notably buddies Ken Babbs, Mike Hagen and David Butkovich, settled nearby. Others moved to California, a couple of them defecting to the Jesus freaks. For the most part, the Pranksters have kept in touch. Only “Stark Naked,” a girl whose loss to madness is described in Tom Wolfe’s book, is unaccounted for. “She left her ovaries in Port Arthur, and then in Houston we lost contact with her,” says Kesey.

“Furthur,” as the Pranksters christened the bus, still sits in Kesey’s front pasture. The psychedelic paint job has faded over the years. The seats have been ripped out, and baseball gear is stored inside. Cattle graze beside this cultural relic of the 1960s.

Kesey and the nearby Pranksters, calling themselves “The Intrepid Trips Information Services,” drew some public notice in 1974 for organizing “The Bend in the River Council.” The purpose was to persuade Oregonians to consider major issues facing them in the quarter century ahead—land use, environmental design, education, religion.

Otherwise the Pranksters get together “like an old scout troop” for a biweekly session called “The Women’s Auxiliary Businessmen’s Lunch.” Parents of both sexes are required to take turns as baby-sitters so the others can enjoy a kid-free reunion.

A fortnight or so back, the meeting was highlighted by a demonstration of hydraulic tree-removal. Films of childbirth are promised for the future. “It’s not exactly a church group,” says Kesey, “but it’s close.”