Novelist and counterculture icon Ken Kesey died on November 10th in Eugene, Oregon; he was sixty-six. Kesey’s death came just two weeks after he underwent surgery to remove nearly half of his cancerous liver. The procedure followed several years of ill health for Kesey, who was diagnosed as diabetic nearly a decade ago, and suffered a stroke in 1997.
Kesey was born in La Junta, Colorado, on September 17, 1935. His family relocated to Oregon when he was a child. His role as a Sixties counter culture figure was secured with the 1962 publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a popular novel based on his work at a California veteran’s hospital. It was transformed into an even more popular film starring Jack Nicholson twelve years later. Kesey was outspoken in his dislike of the film and the choice of Nicholson to portray the story’s protagonist, Randall P. McMurphy.
Two years after writing Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey penned his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, as well as embarking on a legendary, cross-country venture with an ensemble of friends and family, the Merry Pranksters, in a day-glo covered, converted 1939 International Harvester school bus, the Furthur, equipped with LSD-laced Kool-Aid. The bus was something of a roving cultural definition, as Neal Cassady, who had inspired the protagonist of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was behind the wheel, and their adventure sparked another defining book of the age Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Kesey continued to write through the Seventies and Eighties, but Sometimes a Great Notion marked the beginning of a twenty-eight year hiatus from writing novels, which ended in 1992 with the publication of Sailor Song.
“A great good friend and great husband and father and grand dad, he will be sorely missed but if there is one thing he would want us to do it would be to carry on his life’s work,” Kesey’s friend and fellow Prankster, Ken Babbs wrote. “Namely to treat others with kindness and if anyone does you dirt forgive that person right away. This goes beyond the art, the writing, the performances, even the bus. Right down to the bone.”