Kesey captured a generation's rebellious spirit

November 30, 2001|By Thomas Belton

HADDONFIELD, N.J. -- Ken Kesey has passed on. Some might say he's left his Magic Bus Further for the last time.

Ken belongs to a small group of American authors for whom a generation might be defined. Like Fitzgerald's Jazz Age and Kerouac's Beat Generation, he defined the disaffection and zany humor that became the Hipster Generation of the 1960s.

Mr. Kesey created and embellished upon a uniquely American antihero: the pragmatic loner who is cynical of authority yet capable of noble sacrifices for his fellows. Like Hawkeye in James F. Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Mr. Kesey created fictional savages. They seek separation from mankind's irrational nature through immersion in wilderness (Sometimes a Great Notion), or through personal, symbolic action they protest a dehumanizing world (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).

His prose often protests the systematic mechanization of life, our fixation with material goods and professional advancement, which he felt squandered the moments of life upon the precipitous edge of meaningless ambition.

To our national consciousness he introduced the strange but lovable maladepts known as Big Chief and McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest. The story is told by a giant Indian silently sweeping up the floors of a madhouse while a bevy of psychotics are taken on a joyride by a prankster, a transferee from a prison camp who thought that mental hospitals were lighter time than prison.

Mr. Kesey serves up the hospital and its sadistic head nurse as a fantastically funny yet ultimately sad indictment of American society. By the end of this play (which is now uniformly mandatory in high schools), Mr. Kesey has us questioning whether the nuts are really running the nuthouse and whether confronting authority, as McMurphy does, may be the only noble action available to the man in the street -- to overcome the powerlessness he feels in the economic caste system that is America.

And yet he warns us that the rewards for such actions may be forced mental and physical restraints for those who don't conform.

After Cuckoo's Nest documented the snake-pit mentality of American mental institutions, patient bills of rights were passed in many states. New perspectives arose against anesthetizing patients with drugs, and the horrors of electroshocking and lobotomization were revealed for polite company to contemplate.

Subsequently, Mr. Kesey took off to look for America, or possibly to let America see him and his pals whom he called "the Merry Pranksters." Their spontaneous "happenings" were documented in Tom Wolfe's famous book of the '60s, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The Pranksters set a tone for their generation, who were faced with civil rights beatings and war-ravaged images from Vietnam on the nightly news. They provided an alternative lifestyle, an outlet and a desire to do something different with their milieu. In irreverent disrespect for anything "establishment," conservative or authoritarian, they decided to dig in their heels and refuse prescribed ways of thinking and acting -- to seek an escape from the boring, material artifacts of America in the Eisenhower years.

They grew their hair long, wore outrageous costumes, slept in city parks and traveled like gypsies in mobile communes composed of old converted school buses. They dubbed themselves freaks, hippies and political malcontents. They set up shop for street theater wherever they went, taking on America like idiot savants, acting out every variation on Peter Pan's tumble with the crocodile.

So Mr. Kesey's not a Faulkner or a Hemingway. But in spirit and theme he captured a generation's desire for change. Subsequently, thousands of kids got on buses or hitchhiked across the country looking for another vision of America.

Many carried an old dog-eared copy of Cuckoo's Nest in their back pockets as a road map, with a little of McMurphy's madness in their hearts and some of Big Chief's compassion behind their eyes. On the road again, see ya soon, Ken.

Thomas Belton is a free-lance writer who lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

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