Arts & Entertainment / May 5, 2001
ALBANY ---- Ken Kesey's driving cap tilted sideways on his head, and he cracked a grin while shuffling down a flight of stairs.
The white cap ---- a trademark of his days spent touring the country with Merry Pranksters, which were chronicled by author Tom Wolfe ---- matches Kesey's hair these days. It was a sharp contrast to his bright orange shirt and red shoelaces.
Kesey had just finished a seminar organized by the New York State Writers Institute on Tuesday, and he was scheduled to read at Page Hall in the University of Albany's downtown campus.
Kesey is most famous for writing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1962) and "Sometimes A Great Notion" (1964), his first two novels, both of which were made into movies.
He published his third novel, "Sailor Song," in 1992 and has written other collections of short stories and autobiographical ramblings.
A cluster of fans in tie-dyed shirts, dreadlocks and sandals surrounded Kesey as he swaggered around campus Tuesday afternoon. Dozens of agog neo-hippies waved books at Kesey in hopes of getting his autograph. A few fans ran ahead to snap pictures of his weathered face.
Kesey's toes pointed out, and his heels knocked softly on the pavement while his broad chest stretched the collar of his orange polo shirt. The walk could easily have been a portrayal of Randall Patrick McMurphy, the free-thinking star of "Cuckoo's Nest."
"Ken Kesey is a fire giver, a fire catcher," said Writers Institute Director Donald Faulkner while introducing the writer Tuesday night. "For most of us he helped define a culture, helped define generations of people who have come to see the world in perhaps a different way, or perhaps they've come to see the world in ways they always knew somewhere inside."
Kesey wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" while working the night shift at a mental hospital during nine months of graduate study at Stanford University.
Last month, an adapted version of the book opened on Broadway with Gary Sinise starring as McMurphy.
Evidence of Kesey's continued fame was marked by the hundreds of people of every description, including several dozen Phish-heads, who crowded into the amphitheater of Page Hall to hear his readings.
"My granddaughter Kate asks, 'Why don't they take the guns away?'" Kesey said. "I explained, 'One of the rules in the American rule book says Americans have the right to own guns.'"
The audience was silent, save for a few sneezes and coughs. Kesey remained behind a podium with a short stack of papers in his mildly quaking hand.
"'Hmm,' she muses, 'then what about bullets? Is there anything in the American rule book that says Americans have the right to own bullets?'"
The moral seemed "so clear, so simple, so on target: Guns don't kill people, bullets do."
He wove his experience with .22 caliber rifles into commentary about recent school shootings.
At one point, Kesey looked up from his manuscript to describe a hollow-point bullet flowering as it tears through flesh. He extended his hand and opened his fingers for effect.
The reading ended with Kesey describing an attempt at taking guns away from the right-wing advocates as trying to pull "a blood-soaked pacifier" from the jaws of a rabid Doberman.
Kesey's second reading was a children's story about a mean bear who gets tricked by a squirrel. The bear, "Big Double," emerges from hibernation with a furious hunger. During the bear's devouring rampage, he introduces himself to animals and explains that he will eat them. The animals all say they'll run away and never get caught. But most of them suffer the fate of Big Double's crunching jaws.
The tone of Kesey's voice changed as he played the part of various forest animals. The audience jolted the first time he roared like a bear.
Finally, the bear met a squirrel. The squirrel smoothed his whisker "like a riverboat gambler" while describing how it would escape Big Double.
The squirrel said it would run, jump, hop over to a farm and some crocks of buttermilk before taking flight. The bear keenly knew that red squirrels can't fly, so a chase ensued.
The squirrel directed the bear to a few crocks of buttermilk, which Big Double promptly guzzled. Then the chase kept going with the squirrel climbing to the end of a tree near a deep chasm.
The squirrel sailed off the end of the branch, and the bear leapt after it.
The squirrel, being a trickster, was able to catch a branch on the other side of the chasm while the bear clawed at the air before he splattered below.
The very different readings displayed Kesey's versatility. He's equally comfortable and vivid while writing metaphors about playing tricks on the snarling beast of society, or directly questioning the sanity of juggling rules and rights.
"The word protean is seldom used appropriately in describing a figure of American letters," Faulkner said of Kesey. "It should be reserved for people of great significance and measure; the word is appropriately used tonight."
Kesey answered questions from the audience after his readings. Some asked about his bus trips across the country with the Merry Pranksters, a group known for ---- among other things ---- their use of the hallucinogenic chemical LSD.
A person in the balcony asked Kesey how he felt about Hunter S. Thompson, another American writer who has admittedly experimented with a variety of mind-altering substances.
"I think I had better drugs," Kesey said. A thunder of laughter and clapping hands followed.