We've been in Manhattan about an hour when synchronicity strikes--the kind of coincidence that raises chillbumps. It's 1 p.m. on Thursday May 11, and we're sitting in a cafe taking refreshment, when my cousin Mike hands me a New York Times and there's a picture of Ken Kesey, the writer and counter culture icon, talking to actor Gary Sinese.
Maybe you saw Sinese in "Forest Gump" or "Apollo 13." Could be you've heard of Kesey for his 1962 novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It was turned into a movie starring Jack Nicholson, and won several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. The film brought renewed fame to Kesey.
He was already well-known, not only for his books, but for leading a band of "Merry Pranksters" on a psychedelic bus ride across California and America. That quest--made famous in Tom Wolfe's book, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test"--had as much impact on America in the sixties as any other single force, maybe. For better or worse, it led to a series of events--for instance the rise of rock bands like Santana, the Doors, the Grateful Dead and dozens more--which brought the counter culture to the mainstream of American life. That revolution either broke down a stifling conformity or unleashed demons, depending on your point of view.
Last week, Kesey flew east from Oregon to visit his New York agent and dropped in to see a revival of the play based on "Cuckoo's Nest." He claims never to have seen the movie, out of protest against Nicholson being cast as Randle P. McMurphy, the rebellious inmate of a fictional mental institution.
I could sympathize. I had picked up a paperback version of "Cuckoo's Nest" one evening in 1971 and fell under its spell from those first paranoia-dripping words: "They're out there...." I felt that book's raw power and subtle poetry more than anything I'd ever read. Barely coming up for air, I finished it the same night I picked it up. What Kesey did with language made me want to be a writer.
In 1979 my sister Kathleen and I dropped in on Kesey while traveling in Oregon. He was a gracious host, showing us around his farm, his writing room, setting loose his peacocks, letting us climb on the Merry Prankster bus (since ensconced in the Smithsonian).
Now, 21 years later, here we were in New York and Kesey was in town. That night my brother Tim picked up tickets at a Times Square booth and my weekend was set. I was seeing "Cuckoo's Nest" on Broadway. Anything else would be gravy.
Sinese was good in the role of McMurphy, the brassy Irishman who fights to liberate his fellows from the clutches of the Combine, represented by Nurse Ratched. Maybe you saw the movie or the bold Theater Central production in Knoxville several years back. If so, you'll remember the Combine is the obsession of Chief Broom, the seven-foot Indian inmate who narrates the story. He's what is known in literary lingo as an "unreliable narrator," because you don't know whether to believe the story he's telling you or not. In Chief Broom's case there are plenty of reasons not to. He's paranoid, delusional, under sedation, under-educated, full of prejudice, and he's been shut away on the reservation and in the "cuckoo's nest" for most of his life. Still, he's an engaging and sympathetic character.
Chief Broom sees the Combine as a powerful organization that runs the machinery of the world, forcing us all to conform by implanting eavesdropping devices and other control mechanisms in our very bodies and souls by night, and generally sapping our free will.
Whether the Combine really exists in any sense has been much debated, and New York is as good a place to debate it as any. Stand in Times Square and you almost feel the glowing ads climbing the walls of skyscrapers, including one psychedelic digital ad swarming over a space ten stories high or more, promoting an Internet company. Corporate America is everywhere. On clothing, buses, subways and more. Moreover the triumph of unadorned architecture is almost complete. To look across Manhattan is to gaze upon glistening cubistic crystals of varying heights--almost as if they grew here chemically. Some of them, such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building are elegant, crown jewels of the city. Most are unadorned slabs.
On the other hand, few cities celebrate individuality like New York. To stop in Washington Square on a Sunday afternoon is to be serenaded by musicians--many adorned in tie-dyed clothing and other counter culture accouterments. It's also to be entertained by break dancers, acrobats and jugglers who draw crowds wherever they perform. To run through Central Park, as Tim and I did, is to witness all manner of athlete, actor, filmmaker and activist hawking their wares. The freedom of expression espoused by Kesey and others is alive and well in New York City.
Still, conformity has made a comeback. Whether it be the prosperous times we've known in recent years, or Mayor Giuliani's efforts to clean up the city, New York has seldom looked or smelled better. Graffiti that once smothered the subways has been brought under control. No drug pushers or prostitutes tried selling us their wares in Times Square. The sense of menace I experienced on visits here ten, twenty or thirty years ago was absent. A balance has been struck.
All of which makes viewing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" on Broadway an anachronism. Ken Kesey flew--or drove--over the cuckoo's nest of American life nearly 40 years ago, wreaking havoc with the system, for better or worse. The jury is still out.