Prankster pens Great American Novel

There are many who have taken note that this August was the 35th anniversary of that counter-cultural mojo-mudhump held at a farm near Woodstock, N.Y. Much has been made of that well-documented shindig, so if I’m gonna wax commemorative for ’60s stuff. I’d rather go back a bit “further” and note the 40th anniversary of a most influential bus and its completely brilliant captain.

Forty years ago, in the summer of ’64, Ken Kesey and his pals (who came to be more famously known as the Merry Pranksters) took off from their secret laboratory/ranch in La Honda, Calif., in an utterly bodacious bus (the first of its kind?) called Further, destination New York City. The plan was to be there in time for the release of Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, and also to have a stone-eyed gander at the New York World’s Fair.

The escapades of that epic Prankster journey have become quasi-legendary over the years, and their overall impact on the ’60s too often overlooked and forgotten. After all, if it hadn’t been for their envelope-pushing Acid Tests of ’64-’65, The Grateful Dead would never have become rock ’n’ roll’s answer to the Guild Navigators of Dune. And the Beatles’ transcendental bus trip called the Magical Mystery Tour; well, where do you think they got that idea, anyway?

I’ve been having a good summer with Kesey, who died in November of 2001. First, I checked out his ’86 book, Demon Box, and found it to be a most enjoyable read. It’s one of those articles-written-over-the-years collections, and it contains some wonderful stuff.

Reading that book inspired me to finally pick up Notion, and all I can say, is … what a book. What’s really impressive is that Ken wrote this thing, which can honestly be classified as one of the great American novels of the 20th century, in one of the weirder, wilder contexts with which an ambitious author has ever had to contend. I mean, here’s a guy who has just written an extremely successful, highly acclaimed first novel (Cuckoo’s Nest), and he’s using the proceeds from that book to fund his adventures in La Honda, adventures based around psychic explorations and creative noodling fueled by an outrageously fascinating new substance that released torrent after torrent of both answers and questions. And in this skull-burning setting, where Kesey and pals are pushing the human brain/mind in pretty much the same way Chuck Yeager pushed jets, Ken somehow found the time and inspiration to write a daring, complex and ultimately thrilling novel about … a logging family in Oregon?

And damned if he doesn’t pull it off. So here’s to Kesey, may he not be forgotten. Out of the thousands and thousands over the years who headed off to the woods to write A Great American Novel, he was one of the very few to actually do it. Only in his woods, he’s not alone with his dog and typewriter; he’s out there with Pranksters who are painting trees while talking to fairies and sylphs.