Ken Kesey dedicated his first novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to his friend Vik Lovell with these words: “To Vik Lovell, who told me there were no dragons and then led me to their lairs.” Kesey was speaking, of course, about his experiences with LSD and other psychedelic drugs. It was these experiences that not only fueled Kesey’s first two novels, but also his subsequent life as a cultural revolutionary.
As I write this review I am listening to a recording of one of the “Acid Tests” sponsored by Kesey and his cohorts, the Merry Pranksters. For those who are unaware, these gatherings combined the liberal use of LSD, marijuana and other mood modifiers with jazz/rock music, films and other images, costumes, and dancing to create an experience often described as ecstatic and tribal. Their arrival on the California cultural scene spawned a number of imitators and even more detractors that saw these experiments as dangerous and revolutionary. The recording is an montage of guitar, harmonica, extemporaneous poetry played through time-delay mechanisms and just plain old psychedelic mayhem. It could certainly be considered disconcerting to those used to a linear reality. Of course, it was exactly that reality that the tests aimed to subvert, which is the primary reason why they were considered revolutionary.
Mark Christiansen came of age during the heyday of the LSD historical moment. Ken Kesey was not only one of his psychedelic heroes, but a literary acquaintance of his poet uncle. Christiansen is also the author of the recently published Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy. Nominally a biography of Kesey the writer turned zeitgeist superhero, Acid Christ takes the reader through the author’s experience of Kesey’s books and life as countercultural guru. Although he begins with biographical information about Kesey’s childhood and early life as a writer, Christiansen quickly moves his narrative into another sphere. Using Kesey primarily as a foil, Christiansen writes about his experiences as a suburban child of the 1960s. Naturally, that experience involved a bit of drug use and abuse, some dealing and a lot of trying not to join the conventional world of a career and a mortgage.
He begins his story with a cynical undertone reminiscent of one of the 1960s many detractors. It isn’t Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, but it occasionally comes pretty close. Furthermore, his cynicism often comes off sounding timeworn and trite. Fortunately, Christiansen redeems himself quickly, as if he realized that disparaging the counterculture in terms he once heard used by those who disparaged him might be a dead-end road.
If one is looking for literary criticism of Kesey’s books, the most that will be found here is an overview of criticism written by others. While this is certainly useful to those unfamiliar with Kesey’s works as well as to those that never examined them critically, there is nothing substantially new for the Kesey aficionado. However, since this is a biography and not a book of criticism, this omission seems appropriate. It is Christiansen’s rendering of Kesey’s post-novelist life that this book focuses on and it is that which consumes the bulk of the text.
Christiansen at times refers to Kesey as a libertarian in the Ayn Randian sense. While Kesey was certainly a libertarian, that libertarianism was far removed from Ayn Rand’s selfish objectivism. Indeed, his libertarianism seemed, like the philosophy of much of the counterculture, to be inspired by the early Christians or by the concept the anarchist Kropotkin called mutual aid. In other words, free individuals lived outside the law but within a community with shared values that encouraged communal sharing, not selfish hoarding. As Kesey often noted, Captain Marvel and peyote were his inspiration. Whatever his inspiration was, it certainly wasn’t some Ayn Rand character who rationalized selfish egoism.
There are a few historical inaccuracies in Acid Christ. Most of them have to do with the timing of certain rock album releases and exactly when Orange Sunshine LSD first came on the scene. These errors do not change the overall reality described by Christiansen and will only be noticed by folks like me who remember such details.
Some of Kesey’s confidantes were not happy with Christiansen’s desire to write this book and have dismissed it and its portrayal of their friend and fellow intrepid traveler. Acid Christ wavers between presenting an encouraging image of Kesey and the counterculture he represented and a sanctimonious yet unnaturally mild-mannered dismissal of the entire historic episode. It’s as if the author is still uncertain whether those years he describes were a period of positive change with a bit of excess or a pointless hedonistic binge leading to the death of Western civilization.
Then again, perhaps this uncertainty is exactly what he was looking for when he finished his final draft. If so, he would be one among many for whom the verdict is still out on the period now known as the Sixties. No matter what Christiansen’s intentions were: to write a biography of Ken Kesey, or a memoir of “his Sixties,” or to question the entire experience and its meaning, Acid Christ is an intriguing, humorous, and occasionally insightful four hundred pages.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org