By Chip Brown

September 1992

What is it that makes him look like Santa Claus in the off-season? A little lorn and north-weathered, as if he were an old magician who couldn’t find the scarf in his sleeve anymore and lately had been thinking the measure of a man was not what he’d accomplished, the illusions he’d staged, but rather in how he handled the loss of magic – the disillusion and decay of age. Magician is how Ken Kesey had always thought of himself. Magic was how he described the writer’s art. He launched his classroom spiels by tossing a coin, catching it, then showing the students the empty hand. That bit of misdirection was what writers did, he’d say; a good story was a well-palmed egg, and every name in the pantheon had a signature trick.

When Kesey was at Stanford, apprenticed to Malcolm Cowley in a bumper-crop class that included the young Robert Stone and Larry McMurtry, he developed the Kesey Trick. He was an exuberant storyteller. You didn’t have to read his books to get a sense of his talent; just ask a question, the answers came back in wide gyres of narrative. He wrote like he talked, antic, broad, big-breathed, the word flowing in a slangy, spermy, belt-of-bourbon surge, intimate and muscular, the rigors of the college wrestling mat somehow shaping his way of engaging the world in prose – you got a sense of a writer grappling with his subjects, pinning the story, the paranoia in his vision offset by the relish for the stage. Even now at parties he still loves to flash the tricks he’d wired back in junior high, levitating Q-Tips on playing cards, unearthing coins from kids’ ears. He was still the showman who wanted to be an actor before he picked up a pen, the writer whose first insights were gleaned from Stanislavsky. What does the character want?

Writer as magician: The students nodded – Kesey was all the proof they needed. He waved his wand, and abracadabra! Fame! Money! Myth! His first two books had turned into movies. He’d been talking to young people for decades, he could relate, he crackled with the charisma of rebellion and good times even now, a Sixties anachronism taking pills for high blood pressure, a goofy grandfather with Day-Glo luggage and a balding, white Saint Nick’s fringe above his ears, more than a little nostalgic for the days when the message of the zeitgeist vis-à-vis drugs was Just Say Thanks. You didn’t have to know much about the Sixties to see the decade in his eyes, merry milk blue eyes filled with the auroras of acid and the Pied-Pipered lanterns of the old mystery tour itself.

Was it unfair to wonder now, in these very different times when the crack house and the AIDS ward are the reigning metaphors of communal dissipation, where the magic had gone? Unfair to ask what it had amounted to? Many people in literary circles considered Kesey a magician only in the sense that he’d pulled off one of the great vanishing acts of American literature. No fanatical eremite like Salinger or Pynchon, but a conspicuous absence – a prominent missing person. He had taken himself out of the game after Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964 – done with novel writing. He said, because he wanted to live his novels and make his life his main imaginative act. Partly it was the curse of interesting times, the drudgery of the study unable to compete with the theater in the streets, but Kesey also had to contend with the hex of fame, the crosshairs in the spotlight. Sales of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest would eventually top eight million copies, but it was Tom Wolfe’s history of the Merry Pranksters that turned Kesey the literary phenomenon into Kesey the cultural legend – the man who threw a party and had half the country show up. Earnest commentators would one day spin theories that Kesey’s 1964 trip across America in an old school bus with a jazzy paint job was the cultural segue between the Beats and the hippies. Is it any surprise things went sour? There was the headline marijuana bust in 1967. Kesey tried to throw the law off his tail with a faked suicide, then escaped to a high-profile exile in Mexico. Eventually he returned to face the judge who called him a tarnished Galahad and sentenced him to six months in jail. He served his time and went home to a farm in the wet hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley to raise his family, shear sheep, and fog the spiders in the barn.

And writing? “After two successful novels and ten-times-two successful fantasies,” he wrote in his journal, “I find myself wondering what to prove next. I’ve shown the buggers I can write, then shown them I can repeat, and better the first showing. Now what do I prove? The answer seems to be ‘prove nothing.’ A clever challenge, chaps, and one I confess stirs the fight in me. Now anyone can crank out a nice compact commercial, slide it between covers, and vend it as literature, but how many are there capable of advancing absolute proof of nothing?”

“How Zen,” they might have sighted back in New York. Kesey wrote mostly for himself. He published a pixilated scrapbook called Kesey’s Garage Sale in 1973; fifteen years later, another odd, grab-bag miscellany called Demon Box. A script in 1990 put the Pranksters and Neal Cassady on trial. His two children’s books were charming but did little to shut up the literary gatekeepers, who dismissed him as a failed writer, a once promising casualty of the Sixties. No wonder Kesey preferred to read to audiences of kids – kids he could move, kids he could change.

Had the magician tricked himself? When Norman Mailer visited the farm, the old walruses sank their tusks into the cautionary fate of Hemingway and the problem of “the Hemingway Hump,” which was what you faced when you didn’t have the stamina, or the artistry, to pull rabbits out of the hat anymore. The subject was much on Kesey’s mind. Despite his departure from the New York publishing world, his determination to prove nothing, the dog in him still wanted to go up against the bear. A big book had been gestating, a novel from the whole cloth, not a loose confederation of stuff salvaged from magazines. The effort was overwhelming. Writing had become like juggling. He couldn’t keep as many balls in the air now. “I’ll never write a book as good as Sometimes a Great Notion for the same reason that Salazar will never win another marathon,” he would say. Of course, if you believed that talent was connected to physical prime, you were bound to trap yourself in an artistic and spiritual cul-de-sac eventually. Age deepens the art of some writers – think of Yeats, Tolstoy, any number of women immune to machismo is the first place. Kesey’s whistling-by-the-graveyard bluster about proving nothing, and the few books he’d written, bespoke a writer estranged from his imagination – a writer compulsively combing his autobiography for a way to get beyond it. It was as if he had lost touch with the the art of disappearing into characters. It was as if he were haunted by his own persona, or gonzo, as he called it. How much more difficult to reinvent yourself when you can’t shuck your legend.

What does the character want? Indeed, what did he really need if not another kind of trick, this one to play not on readers but on himself that he might reanimate the muse? His family had come to Oregon by way of Texas and Colorado, a restless clan tending west in search of fresh starts. Could landscape revive the conjuring spirit? A question for a chain of Keseys. He knew already what he hoped, for he had turned his eyes north to the book of spells in that half-real, half-fanciful country: Alaska.

Ken Kesey rolled on in his tractor, minus the load of hay his cows were now munching in a wet, emerald field. A dozen peacocks sashayed about like runway models. Actually, they were more interesting than runway models; they made you think how much more interesting runway models would be if they paused now and then to emit piercing screams. Kesey shut off the machine and clambered down, consciousness incarnate at fifty-six. On this rainy April morning, his ex-wrestler’s amble was a little stiff. We shook hands under the blooming lavender tangle of a wisteria vine that groped like one of Faulkner’s enormous sentences across the front of Kesey’s barn toward the five-pointed star on the hayloft door.

“Where’d you park?” said Kesey, hauling on red sweats. He had powerful forearms and fingers so thick his wife was often stuck with the chore of sewing the beads and tinklers onto his stage costumes.

“Out by the mailbox.”

“That’s where the cops park,” he said.

He invited me inside anyway. Faye, Kesey’s wife of thirty-six years, had gone into town to teach a Bible-studies class, but there was plenty of life in the house: two chicken hatchlings fussing under a sunlamp, a noisy green parrot, an all-but-bedridden springer spaniel named Merry, and Kesey’s favorite dog, Joe, the product of “an unspeakable congress between a Lab and an Alsatian.” I think I saw a cat tooand lots of spiders wobbling out of the barn, where some aerosol arachnicide was rapidly degrading their quality of life. Joe barked and jumped on a one-hundred pound ball of hemp twine to turn a few tricks.

“The U.S. Constitution is printed on hemp,” said Kesey. In an age of politicians who tried pot but didn’t inhale, Kesey’s libertarian notions about what people should be allowed to put in their bodies are bracingly unhedged. In his view, marijuana and LSD should be legal – they’re not the sorts of drugs that make people knock over 7-Eleven stores. The house reflected his psychedelic bias. The living-room floor was painted in electric hues, dozens of shiny Mylar strips dangled from the ceiling, and the office stairs looked as if they’d soaked up a vat of rainbow sherbet. “I love color,” he said. Even nature seemed eager to strut its phantasmagorical side, sending hummingbirds to the feeder and wood ducks to the pond, birds so prismatic they looked to have frolicked on the office stairs when the paint was still wet.

Kesey had the ducks in his binoculars when the phone rang. “Yeah,” he said gruffly. “Uh-huh.” He fell into a conversation with what sounded like an old friend. I poked around the loft-like space, which was comfortably furnished with old couches, shelves of books, an out-of-tune piano. In the bathroom were a copy of Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy” and a photograph of Kesey’s son Jed. “You know if you talk to long your brain goes off to one side of your head,” Kesey said into the phone and hung up.

“That was John Space from the University of Space,” he sighed. He opened the refrigerator and swigged from a bottle of milk. “He thinks I’m on the faculty.” Kesey gets a lot of calls from deans at the U of S. He lists his number on the theory that people will get it anyway and that it only piques the interest of the really dangerous nuts when you try to hide.

After we got talking about his friend Hunter Thompson, Kesey took me upstairs to his office to find some faxes recently arrived from the father of gonzo journalism. When he isn’t holed up at Koasthaus, his retreat on the Oregon coast, Kesey writes at night in the warm, pine-paneled room, often going till dawn and sleeping on a pallet by the computer so as not to disturb Faye. On good day,s he doesn’t get up until noon.

“Here they are,” Kesey said, brandishing the faxes.

Kesey, do you have any acid? I can’t stand the hunger any longer! I’m desperate, Kesey! I need LSD-25! Kesey, where’s the acid? I need it immediately!

Kesey faxed his reply, drawing what looked like a grid sheet of blotter acid: placebo tabs for immediate relief. “They might have worked on Hunter,” he said. Gin and tonics and good Mexican grass are Kesey’s main mood-shifters now, but he still trips occasionally, and every Easter he goes up Mt. Pisgah to drop a tab of LSD. On top there is a memorial for his son Jed, killed in a car crash in January 1984. Thirty years ago, on acid, Kesey had seen the future, his whole life in a deck of cards. One of the cards foretold the death of a son. Or seemed to at the time – the cards riffled by so fast he wasn’t sure what he had seen, or didn’t want to believe what he knew. “you can cheat fate, but you can’t cheat destiny,” he said. He’d thought he’d trumped the death card when he pulled Jed out of an earlier car wreck as a young boy and breathed the life back into his son’s limp body, mouth to mouth.

But no. And when the card was played, and the University of Oregon wrestling van skidded off an icy road en route to a meet, Kesey’s hair turned gray almost overnight. He built his son’s coffin and buried the boy in the yard out back. We walked out to the grave, a gray headstone with candles. In the early stages of grief, Kesey found himself holding long conversations with Jed’s ghost. The news went all over the country, and he received thousands of letters. Angry at the NCAA for allowing the University of Oregon wrestling team to travel in a van without seat belts, a van that had formerly been used to transport chickens to the slaughterhouse, he filed a lawsuit. It was eventually settled out of court, and Kesey used the money to buy the university athletic department a new van.

Metaphysics is a quick trip if you catch the right bus. It was 3:45 in the afternoon, and as “Hit the Road Jack” came booming over the sound system donated by the Grateful Dead, Further II edged down the Kesey driveway. There had been some idle talk about going up a mountain, or maybe dropping by Gateway Mall to freak out the consumers, but we were loose on an existential furlough, we had no agenda, no goal, nothing to prove: Argal, we would prove nothing! Out came the sun, as if to reward good Zen thinking.

“I told you the sun would come out,” said Zane. Kesey’s oldest son runs Key-Z productions and does a fair mail-order business in his father’s books, videos, and T-shirts. He was riding shotgun on the roof, communicating with his dad over a headset mike. Speakers allowed the rest of us to audit all miked conversations and listen to music.

“Keep talking Zane,” said his father.

“Slow, slow, slow,” said Zane as the bus raked under some low-hanging limbs. Those of us on the roof scrunched down.

“I’m gonna bring down these effects,” said Ken Babbs.

Kesey never has a hard time scaring up a crowd. He had rounded up some of the usual suspects – the Married Pranksters, as Zane called the younger generation, and some of the fossilizing originals: Mike Hagen, now a real-estate developer, and Babbs, a neighbor, collaborator, and one of Kesey’s best friends.

He’d corralled a bunch from Nike’s as agency too. Kesey was hoping to persuade Nike to sponsor him in a series of readings/performances at children’s hospitals, and he alos wanted to campaign for a Further Sneaker, which would be a package of white sneakers and psychedelic coloring pens to trick them up with.

So we were about thirty in all, and we went west, honking and waving, “Let the Good Times Roll” rolling from the speakers. Wet, raw Oregon looked like Ireland withouth stone walls, Ireland minus history, wild and blank as if the land, like the trip, was a plain sneaker waiting to be colored in. The half-dozen of us on the roof in harlequin jumpsuits squinted into the wind. The sun vanished behind rain clouds.

Kit Kesey sat in Neal Cassady’s position at the wheel, leaving his uncle and Babbs to handle the rap. Kesey programmed the soundtrack and kept a lookout for traffic.

“Whoa, watch this guy, he can’t see us,” he said as the bus eased by an oblivious pedestrian. “We’ve made it into nothingness.”

That would be a trick, since the 1949 International Harvester has a psychedelic wood-duck paint job and a horn that sounds like a throttled goose. It is a much glossier version of the original Prankster bus, which is now moldering in a swampy woods behind Kesey’s house, “hidden” from the Smithsonian curators who, the story goes, want it for their museum; Kesey won’t donate it unless they agree to leave it as it is now, unrenovated, leaf-littered, rust-eaten, with a cardboard skeleton sprawled behind the wheel in Neal Cassady’s seat.

“Yellow Submarine” surfaced on the sound system. Kesey and Babbs coaxed little Elizabeth Babbs into the chorus. We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow… “Just a short stretch on Highway 58,” Kesey said as we headed up the Willamette Valley.

“Nothing to the left of us, nothing to the right,” said Babbs.

Rain began to slant down. We skirted the Dexter Reservoir.

A young would-be Cassady named John Swan warmed up his rap. He was saying thing like “At this juncture in the space-time continuum…” that made him sound as if he’d sat too long on Kesey’s one-hundred-pound ball of hemp twine. Kesey is of the decided opinion that Neal Cassady “could eat three Robin Williams for lunch with a glass of sauterne.” Swan had gotten Cassady’s form but not the content, to judge from a few passengers who looked as if they were harboring the uncharitable urge to ask him to zip it.

We pulled into the headquarters of Green Tortoise, a hippie bus line that hauls people to Grateful Dead concerts. What was happening at Green Tortoise? Nothing. Had they all seen this load of aimless goofballs before? We pulled out unceremoniously, reveling in our humiliation. One of the things the Chief said about being a warrior in America was that you had to learn to grovel… He punched up “Truckin’,” and the speakers began to pound out one of Kesey’s dear-heart themes: Sometimes the light’s all shining on me/Other times I can barely see…

“We’ve been recruited back into this age…” Swan was droning. Babbs interrupted: “Did you hear about the Indian who drank forty-three cups of tea and drowned in his tepee?”

We went on through Lowell, a somber little town of stony faces where kids did not wave back. We hied by orchards. Back roads. Heard more Proustian installments of Swan’s rap. The drizzle changed keys and began to rain, then changed back and hung fog on the hills. The Chief punched up “Witchi Tai Tai,” and everyone sang along with the old peyote chant. Water spirit spirit running round my head, makes me feel glad that I’m not dead…

And I think it was around then, if not before, that some of us felt the shift in the energy field. I know I did, suddenly happy, buoyed by the trippy blitz of silky air and sights and smells and by this sense of collaborating with the forces behind the pageant of the world. Earthbound improvisations aside, being on the bus to nowhere, proving nothing, was like the release into speed and space after a climb up a long western road-cut. It was like seeing the skyline of a city at night or a range of mountains in flash of lightning, and the exhilaration it generated was the kind that was capable of clarifying whatever it was that you were in the midst of – of releasing all the tension of following forms and observing conventions. How did Kesey put it when we got back? “You try that for three or four days and you don’t need no drugs,” he said. “Ride the bus long enough and the old dog begins to hallucinate.” Exactly, and were the old dogs younger, were the times different, were we after great visions, we might have trucked on for three or four days. We might have even talked about trucking on for three or four days. At the very least we would have motored over to Gateway Mall, where there were consumers whose cages begged to be rattled. A whole new generation had come up, and it was in dire need of unsettling lest everyone end up in Lowell. But there were a lot of reasons to call it a day too, not least of which was the big potluck supper waiting back at Kesey’s place – fresh salmon, tequila, plenty of limes. Much better than living on reds and vitamin C. We eased into the driveway just after 5:00.

Kesey had once lain under a table with a tape recorder and mused on the schism between the consciousness of the West Coast and the consciousness of the East. The sing and design mind divide. You could see a West Coast sensibility in writers like Thompson, Tom Robbins, Pynchon – an aesthetic shaped by acid. But their concerns, their energy, their values, their love of broad strokes, song and dance, puns – “the onus is on us!” – were often dismissed by New York publishing and academic circles.

“What’s important to people on the East Coast isn’t as important to people on the West,” Kesey said. “I want to see strange stuff come out of the water and rear around. Something that’s new and funny. So many books are about nothing but the angst of what was done to you in childhood – I’m not interested in that stuff. A lot of what I see being published hasn’t been written to me. It’s caromed off New York and Hollywood.”

Kesey fed the VCR a copy of a KFQD documentary about his life and up came the face of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. The New York Times book critic dismissed Kesey as “a once promising but minor writer,” like Salinger. “Fanny and Zooey is promising?” Kesey snorted. “That’s like saying Richard III is promising.” Lehmann-Haupt embodied all the problems of the East Coast consciousness; twenty years ago, LSD seemed to serve as an antibody to strain of fatheadedness in the culture, but fatheadedness was vexingly resilient.

“When Mailer visited, he asked, ‘How come we haven’t seen more of you?’ and I said, ‘oh, ‘cause I read that Gordon Lish said I was washed up as a writer,’ and Mailer said, ‘oh, he says that about everyone.’ But at a certain point I knew who I was not writing to. A lot of writers are writing to the Christopher Lehmann-Haupts. I had to think, Who am I really writing for?”

He was writing for citizens of “the fourth world” – that free-spirited territory inhabited by skateboarders and hitchhikers and pharmacological Magellans. Citizenship depended only on being attuned to the spontaneity of the moment. The fourth world was never very far from the prank of consciousness itself – that magic act embedded in the genes. Kesey didn’t envy young people growing up in the thickets of electronic underbrush. When he was young there was no Nintendo, just long summer afternoons to be filled with fantasy, and it was as a kid, long before LSD gave him the big picture in Technicolor and Sensurround, that he had glimpsed the fourth world. He described the awakening in an interview with Gordon Lish in 1963, when the noted editor was still a fan:

“When I was a little kid, there was a stream that came down from the hill at our place and would have cut across our yard, but years before, somebody went out there and covered this stream with stone mortared the stone together so that it left a hump down through th middle of this yard, as if it were left there by a seven-hundred-pound mole. And when the stream dried up, my brother and I – he was in the third grade and I was in the fifth – we went down to the end of that tunnel and walked through it, lighting our way with torches. We found an old accordion under there. It was a great find, and we brought it home and tried to play it. But it wouldn’t play, and we found we could get into it by opening and opening this screw and lifting the top off. We got in to all the valves and bellows and everything, and there, stuck in a corner, we found a piece of paper, a sign, and it said WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU LOOKING IN HERE FOR, DAISY MAE? Well, I achieved some kind of satori right there – knowing that somebody had sometime a very long while ago gone in there and put that sign in that accordion, and he’s betting that someday somebody’s going to come along and find it. A mystery for people to wonder about. Well, that’s what I want for my books.”

One of the delectably grandiose purposes of the Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip in 1964 was to forestall the apocalypse. Almost thirty years later, in Sailor Song, Kesy is just trying to get a credible vision of it on paper.

Faye had returned and was fixing supper. The just-arrived galleys of the novel were sitting on the round oak table off the kitchen. He had started working on it ten years ago, and at times he despaired of ever getting it done. “I’d hit it with electrodes, and it would go uhh!” he said. The book was dedicated to Faye. “Without Faye, I would have been swept overboard by notoriety and weird, dope-fueled ideas and flower-child girls with beamy eyes and bulbous breasts,” said Kesey. Faye absorbed this confession with the deep-seated equanimity she seems to bring to much of the chaos of the house. Though she shared the kayak in which Kesey ran the Sixties, it’s hard to picture her in the whitewater – a devout student of the Bible, a quiet, steadfast presence. They met putting up decorations for a seventh-grade operetta, eloped their first year in college, and withstood the strains of an open marriage: Kesey has a daughter by Mountain Girl, who is now married to Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist of the Dead and one of Kesey’s longtime friends.

Sailor Song is a story about a love affair at the end of the world. It’s set in the future. The town Kuinak, Alaska, has been overrun by filmmakers shooting a movie of a children’s book called the Sea Lion – the text of which Kesey published last year. “When people read the Sea Lion chapter, they’ll say, ‘Well, he can still write straight prose, so he must know what he’s doing. There must be something to all this.’

“This is a book about love and the kind of despair I see in people,” Kesey went on. “Why love, if it’s such a painful thing to begin with? Why bother with it? I wanted to bring two characters together who don’t have anything in common. I’ve never written a love story. I see it almost like a comic book – really broad lines sometimes show more truth than really finely nuanced lines. I think of readers more and more as viewers. If I were thirty years old, I would have written this book with a video camera, and it would exist only on tape. You have to deal with the audience where it is, not where it ought to be. I’m writing for the MTV audience – you have to have quick cuts, brightly colored shots to hold them.”

Faye set some asparagus on Kesey’s plate. Kesey’s father had always talked about Alaska. “It was Ben in Death of Salesman who said, ‘You gotta go where the diamonds are.’ ” He saw the progress of his family from the Midwest to Oregon echoed in his fiction, Cuckoo’s Nest reaching Oregon, Sometimes a Great Nation making the last leg to the ocean.

“I think people turned right and headed to Alaska – to go beyond the periphery of culture and society,” he said. “The business of getting into drugs is a continuation of my father’s western movement. Today the air is worse, the water is worse, we don’t score as high on tests, more people are in prison than in any time in history, the war on drugs is a war on poor people trying to get high, the Gulf war is another episode of Cheers, and nobody is firing true bullets into the heart of villainy. Only space is left to us – the American character is the one who’ll go after that spiritual space even if he has to break the drug laws to do it.”

It was the filmmaker Caroll Ballard who brought Kesey to what passes for America’s last frontier. Ballard was shooting Never Cry Wolf around Skagway in 1982 and wanted Kesey to write an ending. “ I couldn’t believe how wired Skagway was,” he said. “It wasn’t chemical, it was legal. Alaska brings something out of you. It makes women look beautiful, not just the Cosmo cover girls but big old forty-five year-old overweight women. Something about the harshness of the country – the torn, ripped quality of the little towns – accentuates the softness of women. The land is always daring you: Come on, give me your best shot. I started taking notes and thinking about it.”

He made a trip the next year to Dillingham with Jed, their last summer together.

There wasn’t an ounce of sexual tension on the streets of Eugene, or in Oregon for that matter; the women all seemed like potters or weavers, centered spiritual, appalled by the idea of eye shadow. And the men in their jeans and lumberjack woolens were all sensitive, politically correct sorts, too, untainted by vanity as they peered up through their beards like pale freshwater fish in saw grass.

But Los Angeles at this moment was fizzing with sex – 75 libidinal degrees, bright sun wrenching in the succulents. Kesey fixed himself a bourbon in the back of the white stretch limo sent by NBC and looked out at the pastel bungalows. He tried for two summers to break into acting. To make money, he wrote stories for a Tijuana publisher about the venereal adventures of one Dan Iron.

I’ve never left L.A. with more than I came with,” Kesey sighed reflectively. When we arrived at the NBC studios, a young woman in cowboy boots and a tight white cotton dress with a hem of fringe was bantering with some guy on the steps. Her legs were bare, her hip was cocked, the fringe of her dress swayed when she shook her long, dark hair.

“Did you see that fringe?” Kesey said as we went in.

But there was hardly time to focus because Vicki, the talent booker, was wearing a leopard-skin blouse, and Michelle, the makeup woman, was outfitted in un-Oregonian fashion, and on the monitor Bob Costas was inclining toward Downtown Julie Brown, who was sutured into a red dress…

“Men aren’t bird-dogging women the way they used to,” Kesey said when we were safely kenneled in his dressing room. “Women are noticing it. Women are starting to get restless.”

It seemed like wishful thinking to me, at that point. It seemed like we had turned ourselves into a spectacle of bird-doggery. Kesey unlatched his psychedelic suitcase and blocked his top hat; he set his masks and his copy of the I Ching on the table. He consults the oracle almost daily, throwing three coins that were machined from a copper pipe by a couple of his cell mates from his days in jail. Even in his tux, Kesey upheld the style of West Coast consciousness, setting off the formal attire with tie-dye socks and shirt. He looked ready to romance a wood-duck. Downtown Julie Brown tottered down the hall in X-rated heels, looking for someone to help extricate her from the red dress. On the brink of making a drastic change in the focus of my profile, I consulted Kesey’s copy of the I Ching: “Retreat is the correct way to behave in order not to exhaust one’s forces.”

Kesey was up on the monitor himself now.

“You scored big not just commercially but critically while still in your twenties,” Costas said, not shying from the East Coast question. “Many people would say you peaked with Sometimes a Great Nation. Do you feel they have a point?”

“Many people have to check USA Today to see whether they had an orgasm,” Kesey shot back. “I have a large body of work, but it hasn’t come through the media.”

Costas invited Kesey to read. Kesey opened a copy of Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear, a story he was proud to say had been ranked with immortal tales like The Cat in the Hat. He read for five minutes; he read for ten. He read for what in television is the equivalent of an ice age. Costas had slipped offstage and had tried giving Kesey wind-it-up signals, but Kesey was locked and zoned, jumping from Little Tricker’s chattery treble to Big Double’s basso profundo. Kesey swept his hat off, perspiration gleaming on his scalp like Mylar.

“He’s got a Nixonian sweat going,” Costas whispered.

The director looked flummoxed.

“We’ll use a few minutes and run the credits over it,” Costas said, reluctant to interrupt the spell Kesey’s story had cast over the hard-boiled audience of television people sitting on studio bleachers. The story worked like Julie Brown’s red dress. People were enthralled, some even gasped at the end when Kesey released a mechanical bird. The bird veered over the cameramen, circled the cavernous studio, and crashed at the back of the set.

As we headed out, Michelle the makeup woman said, “Nice working with you.”

“You give good face,” said Kesey.

The limo driver took us back to the airport for a flight across the L.A. basin to Claremont McKenna College. In the morning, Kesey spoke to an English class, a sea of mostly white, respectful faces; it was probably safe to assume most of them would never go into a bookstore on acid, as Kesey once did, and sign all of Hitler’s titles. Kesey made a coin disappear, explained his trick theory of writing, and told the class, “Write what you don’t know. What you know is almost dull. If you had a really interesting life, you almost surely wouldn’t be writing.”

And toward the end of the class, Kesey launched into the story of his writing a novel with students at the University of Oregon. They decided to give a reading of the final product. A big event. A packed house. TV stations were covering it, the performers decked themselves out in nineteenth-century costumes. Midperformance, a class member who was a devotee of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh inserted a treacly valentine to his guru. Kesey and his students were outraged. “It was worse than a priest peeing on the pope’s foot. This guy’s love of his deity was more important than writing.”

“So,” said Kesey, his voice shifting, “you’re walking down the street one day and you see God. He’s got the blue eyes of Jesus and the White Beard of Moses and the sword of Krishna and the bow and arrow of Diana, and he says to you, ‘Come with me! Come with me!’ What do you do? Do you go with God?” Kesey paused, the silent drama of the question built. All of a sudden he pounded the table, startling some of the students, galvanizing the class. “No!” he roared. “The job of the writer is to say, ‘Fuck you, God! Fuck you and the Old Testament you rode in on!’ You’re writers, your job is to kiss no ass!”

Afterward he autographed copies of books, his own and others. Sometimes he signed his name “Jerry Sinatra.”

That night, sitting around with margaritas and some Mexican marijuana, we watched Cybill Shepherd run the paces with Jay Leno. The odor of bougainvillea slithered through the screens. “She looks like forty scoops of vanilla ice cream,” Kesey said, taking another drag. “Larry McMurtry is still in love with her.” Who could blame him – Cybill wiggled out in an itsy blue dress, her flaxen goddesshood somehow humanized by the bad match of her cream shoes. Was it the cannabinol content of Kesey’s stash, or the lift of the tequila, or the psychotropic L.A. air? All I know is that when Kesey said, “You know what the trouble with Esquire is?” I found myself thinking maybe he hadn’t forgiven me for parking where the cops park. Maybe the trouble with Esquire in his view was they couldn’t get writers who could concentrate on their author profiles with Downtown Julie Brown around. As the subject had come up, I found myself roughing out a Top Ten list of problems with Esquire: No free acid at Christmas parties. Women We Love models won’t put out. Corporate dining room off limits to free-lancers…

“Not enough tits,” said Kesey.

Aha! We brainstormed remedies. He said he’d write some of those short, frothy paeans to fringe and décolletage you always see in Vanity Fair – bird-dog caption prose for riffing on actresses – an art form unto itself.

“Sort of like haikus,” I said.

The words looped through Kesey’s phase-shifted mind. “High cooze,” he said, then laughed unreconstructed delight.

“Magic,” wrote E.M. Cioran, the great Romanian screwball, “is useful for small and inessential things, but powerless when confronted with metaphysical reality.” Well, maybe. Or maybe not. His last night at Claremont, Kesey packed the house. There was something poignant in his asking the crossed-arms crowd of deans and professors and students to pretend they were all twelve years old. But before long, those who didn’t look a little hoodwinked were leaning forward, eager to hear more of the wily squirrel that outwitted bears in Topple’s Bottom. A man well into the second half of his life now, Kesey cares less about what people believe than about what he might get them to do, and that night – a night in which he received an unsentimental ovation and was beset by admirers – he got them to wear the faces of children. And then, amazingly, to sing: Sometimes the light’s all shining on me/Other times I can barely see/Lately it occurs to me/What a long strange trip it’s been.

His anthem. All together now.