Ken Kesey remains a maverick, pulling all-nighters to write

October 02, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

Menlo Park, Calif. -- Ken Kesey read from his acclaimed new novel, "Sailor Song," at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, the town where it all began 30 years ago in a funky cottage with a tree in the center of the street, a night job at the Veterans Administration Hospital and an idea that with help from hallucinogens became "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Since Mr. Kesey's last official visit, Kepler's, once the outpost for Menlo Park militancy, has moved to a mall. But Mr. Kesey's outlaw spirit was piqued by the idea of returning.

He was exiled from all of San Mateo County 25 years ago after a drug bust, and as far as he knows he is not welcome or even allowed back.

Doubtful that the cops would bother, but "I hope they do," he says a few days before, with that broad, mischievous grin. "That would really sell books." Not that he has ever cared about the commercial end of publishing. This isn't exactly Danielle Steel.

"Sailor Song" is his first complete novel in 28 years.

The futuristic plot centers on an Alaskan fishing village corrupted when a Hollywood studio arrives by yacht to film on location.

This might be construed as a knock on the Academy Award-winning film of "Cuckoo's Nest," which the author has never seen. He's been tempted in late-night hotel rooms when it's on the tube, but has resisted.

"The smartest thing I never did," he says. "I don't have to answer questions about it."

The film that "Sailor Song" revolves around is of a children's tale called "The Sea Lion," which is inserted in its entirety into the book, the way "The Pension Grillparzer" appeared in John Irving's "The World According to Garp."

If it weren't for "The Sea Lion," Mr. Kesey would have never agreed to tour and sign "Sailor Song." On the tour he's doing a full theatrical, costumed and choreographed performance of the story at children's theaters, including tonight's show at the Santa Cruz Civic Center.

The money he makes on book sales he loses on his hour-long production of "The Sea Lion," along with about 30 pounds of sweat in the telling.

"Sailor Song" took nearly a decade of all-night struggles to write, as is his fashion. "I immerse myself in manure," he says, "so I can write about horses."

In 1984, just when momentum was building, he suffered the death of a son, Jed, in a car wreck en route to a college wrestling meet.

"I was going pretty good and then lost a kid," he says, "and that took the wind out of my sails."

He has also published a few collections of short stories and journalism, including his obituary for John Lennon, perfectly titled "Now They Know How Many Holes It Takes to Fill the Albert Hall," and a children's book, "Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear," which he considers his finest overall work.

When "Sailor Song" was finished, all 533 pages, he traveled to New York for a reading before "the big top-drawer writers."

That was enough of the shill.

"I realized I wasn't going to change any of these people," he recalls. "I was going to just go up or down in their estimation."

So he went home to the 70-acre Oregon farm that was his father's before him. He wears his uniform of tie-dyed T-shirt, white pants and a white Western straw hat with a beaded band to protect his thick neck and balding head against further liver spots.

He once resembled Paul Newman, who portrayed the lead character Hank Stamper in the film of his other novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion." They have stayed in touch and Mr. Newman is reading "Sailor Song" for similar treatment, with a dinner planned in New York. Mr. Kesey is prepared for the shock of comparison.

"Newman has preserved himself," says Mr. Kesey, who just turned 57. "He's 10 years older, at least, and he looks 10 years younger, at least."

Perhaps it is the lifestyle. Mr. Kesey hasn't had a regular night's sleep since high school.

"I like being a famous writer," he says, "it's just that every so often you have to write something." When he does, "I wake up around 3 p.m. and prowl the house like a disenfranchised wraith," he explains.

In the afternoon, he says, he works the fields, admitting that "I'm not the best farmer in the world. I let a lot of stuff slide. But it's a better way to stay healthy than sit in your living room and pedal around a bike going nowhere."

The extended family, including two grandchildren, "not to mention all the Pranksters," are in the vicinity. When Mr. Kesey climbs the stairs to his studio, lights are out in most of the Willamette Valley.

"I like that time of the night," he says. "The phone doesn't ring. That's the only time I can get my mind to crank correctly."

His writing is like composting. "You pile a bunch of papers together and when they smell right you have to do something with them."

Occasionally a fax will arrive from the equally nocturnal Hunter Thompson, in Woody Creek, Colo. "Kesey, do you have any acid? I can't stand the hunger any longer."

The answer is no, at least while working, though he admits to "smoking a lot of pot to ease into the evening."

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