A few years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, I was lucky enough to be seated next to Ken Kesey at dinner. With calloused hands the size of redwood trunks, the Pied Piper of the ’60s held a bright red beret and a wooden flute, in case the muse whispered in his ear. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was there to promote a documentary about the Beats, but it didn’t take him long to blast the two things that had made him famous: Tom Wolfe‘s chronicle of Kesey’s road-tripping Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Kesey found it skewed and mocking)—and the Jack Nicholson film version of Cuckoo’s Nest (which sharply deviated from the book). To his dying day he boasted he’d never seen the movie, which swept the 1975 Oscars. He told me, ”I consider it one of the smartest things I never did.” On Nov. 10, Kesey, 66, died in Eugene, Ore., of complications after surgery for liver cancer.
As a grad student at Stanford, Kesey moonlighted on the graveyard shift in a psychiatric ward, and it’s there that he set Cuckoo’s Nest. Published in 1962, it became an anti-authoritarian bridge between the Beats and hippies. Other novels followed—like 1964’s superior Sometimes a Great Notion, an epic tracing a Pacific Northwest logging family. Still, Kesey was yoked in the public’s consciousness to Cuckoo’s Nest and his Day-Glo bus—a 1939 International Harvester in which he and the Pranksters crisscrossed the country, tripping on LSD and, as Wolfe put it, ”tootling the multitudes.”
As for me, I’ll never forget listening to Kesey recall his life’s long, strange trip. Or how he, after hearing me describe the night sky as viewed from a certain spot in the Egyptian Sahara, asked for a pen to note the exact place—adding it to his list of wonders yet to discover.