The Day Ken Kesey Disappeared

The Village Voice, perhaps in an effort to figure out what the hell happened to the New Journalism it pioneered, trawls through its archives every day and pulls out an entertaining artifact or two. Today’s entry comes from the May 12, 1966 issue of the paper, which includes a fun piece on the disappearance of Ken Kesey, who skipped California for Mexico to avoid arrest on drug charges, hamfistedly faking his death in the process. At that point Kesey’s career had shifted; his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, was met with middling reviews, but he was busier with the Merry Pranksters. The Voice story captures the transformation from establishment novelist to goddam hippie in three quick paragraphs:

It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published Kesey’s first novel in 1962. “One Flew Over” was well received. Critics found in the plight of a ward of mental patients a parable of the whole human condition. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 performances.

With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cassidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.

“Sometimes a Great Notion,” published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — unable, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men…can get together and make a whole life.” Newsweek called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”

By the end of the Voice story, Kesey was still on the lam, but he was only able to avoid the authorities for eight months. In 1968 he served five months for marijuana possession in the San Mateo County Jail, an experience he documented in a posthumous book, 2003’s Kesey’s Jail Journal. Apparently you can purchase a copy direct from Kesey’s son Zane.

2 thoughts on “The Day Ken Kesey Disappeared

  1. It’s easy to put someone down.

    After going AWOL from the apartheid army in 1981 I ended up the “mad ward” of the Bloemfontein military hospital. I was there for a couple of weeks, and Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion was the only sanity I encountered. I still think it’s a great book.

    Writers who can look down on Sometimes a Great Notion should read it, and then try and write something better.

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