Friends and family recall the inspirations behind Ken Kesey’s landmark first novel

Published: (Sunday, Feb 5, 2012 05:00AM) Midnight, Feb. 5

It was 50 years ago Wednesday that Ken Kesey’s wildly acclaimed novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” burst onto the published page, but his widow, Faye Kesey McMurtry, knows exactly how long the writing took.

“It took the same length of time that it took for my pregnancy with Zane,” one of Ken and Faye’s three children, said McMurtry, who last year married another acclaimed author and longtime family friend, Larry McMurtry of “Lonesome Dove” fame. “Ken was collating the pages (to send to the publisher) while I was in labor.”

At the time, the young couple had been married for six years and were living in Menlo Park, Calif., the next town north of Palo Alto, where Kesey was participating in a writing project taught by author Wallace Stegner at Stanford University.

“We lived in a little area with little houses all around,” McMurtry said from Tucson, Ariz., where she and her new husband have a home. “There was a one-room shack behind our house, and that was where he did his writing.”

As for Kesey’s writing habits way back then, when he was still in his 20s and adding to his young family, “he tended to work hard for very long periods and then take a couple of days off,” McMurtry recalled. “But he always had time for the family.”

He also had to work to support them. While at Stanford, he had volunteered for “a drug experiment” at a nearby Veterans Administration hospital, McMurtry said, “but he also needed a job so he applied to become an orderly there. He worked mainly at night.”

That, of course, became the germ of the idea for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Kesey’s unvarnished yet tender tale of the treatment — both medical and personal — of men in a ward at a mental hospital that he set in Oregon, where he had lived since he was 8 years old.

Kesey wrote a couple of other works while at Stanford, “Zoo” and “End of Autumn,” but he never intended for them to be published, McMurtry said.

Preparing manuscripts back in the days of manual typewriters and typewriter erasers and onion-skin copy paper made for far more picturesque pages than one see’s today with the instant fixes now possible with computers.

The University of Oregon’s Special Collections & University Archives has dozens of boxes of Kesey memorabilia, including an original manuscript of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” complete with black and blue pencil markings pointing out misspellings and word changes.

Looking at that raw, marked-up, double-spaced type next to the unsullied first page of the published novel offers much more of a thrill, as if Kesey himself might just have stepped into the next room for a minute.

Ken Babbs, a lifelong friend of Kesey’s from that same time period on, has a special recollection of Kesey from the time he began writing the novel.

“He was dynamite,” Babbs said. “He started writing it in 1961, after I’d left for the Marine Corps, but he was always sending me pieces of it.”

Like many who compare the book with the blockbuster film made 13 years later, Babbs criticizes the movie for abandoning the narrator — a gigantic Native American called Chief Bromden — whose personality and omnipresent observations provide the glue that keeps all the characters together from first page to last.

Not that Babbs has ever seen the movie, but he’s heard plenty about it, especially because it won five major Academy Awards — Oscars for best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay — plus any number of other awards, including a Grammy.

“I never saw the movie because Ken (Kesey) refused to see it,” Babbs said. “So I said, ‘If you’re not going to, then I won’t either.’”

That refusal followed a legal battle between Kesey and the producers of the film version, who first “came up to Oregon and got him to write the screenplay and then didn’t use it,” Babbs said. “He sued them, and he won, and when it was all over their head guy said, ‘You may have won, but when it opens you’ll be first in line to see it,’ and he said then he would never see it.”

The character of Chief Bromden had been percolating in Kesey’s mind for a very long time, Babbs said. When Kesey was a kid, “he used to go to Eastern Oregon a lot with his dad, and they always stopped at Celilo Falls to watch the Indians fish,” he said. “He told me that he was there once, watching the water rise, and this big huge Native American came up and started across the road and got flattened by a cement truck. Kesey said he ran over, and he couldn’t find any sign of the guy — there was nothing there.”

Then, while Kesey was working at the VA hospital in Menlo Park, “He saw him again,” Babbs said. “He told me he was in the ward one night, and there to the window came a big Native American guy, and he looked in the window. He said it was the same guy, and it gave his book its whole character. To this day, I don’t know if any of that was ever real or not.”

Maybe that doesn’t matter. The result is what it is: a rich cast of characters that includes a ward full of patients divided into “Acutes,” with possibly temporary mental illnesses; “Chronics” who probably will never live outside an institution again; and the deviously controlling Nurse Ratched and her minions. Many reviewers since 1962 have characterized the story as a war between good and evil.

The back jacket of the “50th anniversary edition,” newly published by Viking’s Penguin Group, excerpts a half-dozen of the original 1962 reviews. “Kesey has made his book a roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the invisible Rulers who enforce them,” Time Magazine trumpeted. “An extremely impressive first novel,” Saturday Review agreed. “Kesey’s storytelling is so effective, his style so impetuous, his grasp of characters so certain that the reader is swept along ...”

Kesey’s other major novel was 1964’s “Sometimes A Great Notion,” the story of the contentious Stamper family in a battle with the loggers that work for the family mill, also set in Oregon, along the Siuslaw River. It, too, became a well-received movie, released in 1971 with an all-star cast, but it received only two Academy Award nominations and won neither.

Nonetheless, some, including his widow, consider it the finer of Kesey’s two early novels. “I liked it better,” McMurtry said. “I thought it was more mature and complicated.”

Although he did produce other writings and edited a literary journal, Kesey only wrote three more novels in his later years, but two were collaborations with others, including 1994’s “Last Go Round” with Babbs. “Caverns,” published in 1989, was written by Kesey and a University of Oregon creative writing class he taught at the time under the pen name O.U Levon (UO Novel backwards).

“I guess he got distracted,” McMurtry said of why Kesey didn’t write more after the extraordinary literary success of his first two.

Those distractions included the trips and travels of the Merry Pranksters, who traveled in the psychedelically decorated bus named Further back to New York City in 1964 to celebrate publication of “Sometimes A Great Notion” and visit the New York World’s Fair.

But Babbs, one of the primary pranksters, said Kesey had his reasons for dropping novel writing. “He said, ‘I proved myself once, I proved myself twice, now what do I have to prove myself again for?’” Babbs said.

“He also told me that writing was ‘just one blade on my Samurai Swiss army knife.’”

In fact, Kesey, who also was an accomplished ventriloquist and magician, didn’t consider his literary works to be his greatest achievement, Babbs said.

“He told me the bus — Further — was his greatest work,” he said. “He said it was not an illusion like books and movies. It’s what was real.”

Then he turns his view of his longtime friend upside down again. “You know, showman and shaman are pretty close to the same thing,” Babbs said.

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