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Conversations with Ken Kesey.

Conversations with Ken Kesey

Edited by Scott F. Parker

(Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014)

The University Press of Mississippi's Conversations series, which compiles previously published interviews with world-renowned writers, has, over the years, provided not only new insights for scholars, but also entertaining reading for the general public. Keeping with this tradition, Conversations with Ken Kesey, edited by Scott F. Parker, collects seventeen interviews that range over forty years from 1959 to 1999, roughly spanning the period from the writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to shortly before Kesey's death on November 10, 2001. The earlier interviews appeared in underground press publications while the later in major literary and academic journals. Tracing this publication history allows readers to see Kesey's growing importance, canonization, and lionization as an American cultural figure, as well as an American writer. The collection's chronological organization also reveals Kesey's changing perceptions and pronouncements and, taken in total, portray a man of complex contradictions. Although Kesey's public persona never seemed to wear thin like that of his friend Hunter S. Thompson, the interviews work to make the split between Kesey the man and Kesey the performer somewhat clearer while persistently underscoring his position as a major touchstone for post-World War II American countercultures.

Throughout the interviews, Kesey cannily grounds his actions and fiction within the context of masculine performance and the great American myth of the expansive drive of the West. He applies his homespun American wisdom to the craft of writing as well as applying that clear-eyed approach to the often confusing, shifting world of writing and publishing. Repeatedly, Kesey relays to interviewers words that he attributes to his father--"good writing ain't necessarily good reading"--and to William Faulkner--"Ever so often the dog has to go against the bear just to keep calling itself the dog." Accurate attribution aside, much of Kesey's public image is clear within those phrases, but readers are left to determine if these texts are ever able to puncture the facade and reveal Kesey the person as well as Kesey the persona.

Parker's assemblage of interviews with Kesey depicts a man who resists being pigeonholed. In the early interviews, Kesey reveals Neal Cassady's influence on him through the idea of a life lived as an artistic endeavor. And the 1993 interview with The Paris Review, more than any of the others, works to place Kesey within the Beat pantheon, with Cassady as his great teacher and Ginsberg as his connection to Vik Lovell, who engineered Kesey's participation in the original LSD experiments conducted by the CIA at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital in California. By the time of this interview, a 58-year-old Kesey is reflective, especially when it comes to Cassady, who had then been dead for a quarter of a century. The most important lesson learned from Cassady, Kesey relates, is also "the most ironic: most of what is important cannot be taught except by experience. His [Cassady's] most powerful lesson behind the rap was not to dwell on mistakes" (151).

But Kesey himself was never entirely comfortable with the Beat label. His famous comment that he was too young to be a Beatnik and too old to be a hippie-repeated here in the Salon magazine interview (173)--is sometimes understood to be rueful, but after reading the collected interviews, one may conclude that it was a warning to readers and scholars not to attempt to categorize him quite so easily. The man we see depicted here often has little patience for interviewers who think that they know and understand him or who seem to believe that since he is Ken Kesey, he must unthinkingly accept all ideas that bubble up from the underground.

Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Tony Auth, who began his work in the underground American publications of the '60s, told NPR's Fresh Air program in 1988 that it was easier working for mainstream than counterculture newspapers because the "underground editors tended to think they knew the truth." Many of the earlier Kesey interviews are also drawn from the small underground press of the time and, as one might suspect, they carry its bias. Take, as an example, the 1970 interview with the Ann Arbor Argus, which finds Kesey in a combative mood, starting his side of the conversation with "I hate interviews" (43), and challenging the interviewer's questions on revolution and the role of the media in underground culture. The mistake the Argus interviewer makes that seems to anger Kesey is the assumption that Kesey is part of the counterculture while Kesey seems to see himself, perhaps rightfully so, as being so important to the genesis of the American mid-century counterculture that he is actually beyond it. A watchmaker god, he has initiated actions but does not need to involve himself with the day-to-day drama or to use the right buzzwords. He is concerned with the future, not the present or the past. By the time of the 1992 interview with Todd Brendan Fahey, for instance, Kesey is re-inventing and demonstrating his relevance through his understanding of how newly developing media and technology were influencing writing overall: "the novel," he said to Fahey, "will sell as though it's a novel, but you'll play it through your video" (128).

Yet we also see in the interviews a man (rather than a legend) who moves from youth to old age to death, specifically fighting off the encroaching and debilitating conditions of diabetes, hepatitis C, and the after-effects of a stroke. In the later interviews, he is sometimes rueful about early life mistakes, questioning whether he is still relevant or how he can regain relevance in late middle age. He spends time recounting the physical strength of his youth, and readers watch as his political views towards issues like feminism and abortion shift as does the culture changes around him. By 1986 he tells KBOO radio, "I don't know if I've got another Great Notion in me ... Maybe you can only do that at a certain time ... we went through a period of time in which we were being taken by the muse without having to reflect. It was moving us" (105-6).

That change, revealing the struggle of a life lived, echoes throughout the interviews. For instance, Gordon Lish's 1963 interview with Kesey reveals the difficulty that the establishment had in placing Kesey in a literary school and Kesey's rejection of the concept of an artist portraying life as it is, that is, the difference between reportage and fiction. In this same interview, Kesey states that he does not see Kerouac as a novelist, but rather as a reporter (23). We also see here Kesey connecting his psychedelic experiments with the organizational strategy for Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). The drugs, he says, revealed to him "[p]oints of view and points of time. Whole bunches of ways of looking at the same event" (20). This revelation inspired the multiple points of view within Sometimes a Great Notion, but when he was interviewed by Pacifica Radio in 1965, a year after the publication of the text, Kesey expressed doubts about what was left to say in writing. He admitted believing that everything had been done before and feeling deeply the struggle to say something in a novel way. That struggle dogged him throughout the years. The 1986 interview with John Nance, Paul Pintarich, and Sharon Wood on KBOO radio is notable for Kesey's questioning of why American writers complete their best works in their youth and do not age into better work. Notable too is the fact that the writers who he lists as not improving with age--Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck--all struggled with substance abuse and addiction, a point to which Kesey, at least in this interview, seems blind.

While the strength of the collection lies in revelatory depictions such as these, the volume overall is somewhat uneven. Several of the interviews are extremely dated and remind the reader of just how long ago these interviews were recorded and how different the world now is. A prime example is the 1971 interview published in The Realist and conducted by fellow counterculture giant Paul Krassner. The concepts and the language Krassner and Kesey use to discuss them, such as "negative energy" and "women's lib," have changed or long since fallen into cliche. It is also in this interview that Kesey refers to abortion as "the worst worm in the revolutionary philosophy," although Krassner notes in the transcript that a "couple of years later" Kesey repudiated his original views on abortion to him in a private conversation (59).

There are some interviews in which these multiple streams of Kesey's life meet, and the collection is much better for it. For instance, in the 1990 interview with Carolyn Knox-Quinn from College Composition and Communication, Kesey, who in many of the prior interviews dwells on the importance of teachers in his writing career, takes on the role of instructor and explains, through reflection, how teaching a group of University of Oregon graduate students and the subsequent collaborative novel, Caverns, created in the class, influenced his own ideas about writing. He speaks in detail of the renewed energy he felt from writing and editing with his students. "You get tired of doing things by yourself ... When you give something and the other person knows that he got it. That'll recharge you on both ends" (123).

Starting with the Knox-Quinn interview, we see a much changed Kesey, and by 1999, Robert Elder, in Salon, was able to suggest that Kesey, the last surviving member of "the pantheon of '60s counterculture icons," had become something of a spiritual relic (173). Like religious pilgrims, writers were compelled to sit next to and speak with this man who had seen and been the progenitor of so much of the literary counterculture that they had grown up taking for granted. Indeed, the final interview with Mike Finoia in Relix magazine is respectful reminiscence rather than revelation--a young man sitting with an old man and asking him what life was like in the old days.

Interviews in the collection include "Ken Kesey's first 'trip'," Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, 1959; "What the hell you looking in here for, Daisy Mae?," Gordon Lish, 1963; "Ken Kesey at N.D.E.A.," Pacifica Radio Archives, 1965; "The evening standard interview: Ken Kesey," Ray Connolly, 1969; "Once a great notion," Ann Arbor Argus, 1970; "An impolite interview," Paul Krassner, 1971; "Ken Kesey summing up the '60s, sizing up the '70s," Linda Gaboriau, 1972; "Ken Kesey: the prince of pranksters," Rick Saunders, Bob Nesbitt, and Vaughn Binzer, 1976; "Getting Better," John Nance, Paul Pintarich, and Sharon Wood, 1986; "The Fresh Air Interview: Ken Kesey," Terry Gross, 1989; "Collaboration in the writing classroom: an interview with Ken Kesey," Carolyn Knox-Quinn, 1990; "Comes spake the cuckoo," Todd Brendan Fahey, 1992; "Ken Kesey: Writing is an Act of Performance," Dan McCue, 1993; An Interview with Ken Kesey," Matthew Rick and Mary Jane Fenex, 1993; "Ken Kesey: The Art of Fiction no. 136," Robert Faggen, 1993; "Ken Kesey: Still on the Bus," Robert K. Elder, 1999; and "Ken Kesey's Last Interview," Mike Finoia, 1999.

--Michael J. Dittman, Butler County Community College
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Author:Dittman, Michael J.
Publication:Journal of Beat Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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