California is a Harsh Mistress for Writers
What is it about California that, at once, attracts and repels writers? The first thing I heard when I came to the promised land as a bumbling young student in the 1960s was, “You’ve got to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Which I did right away.
Kesey had discovered that the West, both as physical geography and state of mind, had turned in on itself, like a Mobius strip of some kind. The frontier was gone, and you could see that standing on the cliffs above Big Sur looking out to the Pacific. So the new world for a writer to conquer was all inside, all neurons and synapses, in that strange interior space known as consciousness, which, like the universe itself, was expanding at almost lightspeed. Kesey found it here in California, discovered it as a pioneer, but then, unfortunately, retreated back to his roots, his beloved creamery farm in Oregon, a writer and culture hero gone to seed. Meanwhile, Jack Kerouac, the great Beat writer, fled California in the late 1960s and died somewhere in Florida; Richard Brautigan, the gentle poet of hippiedom, got a big ranch up in Montana and shot himself to death. Allen Ginsberg moved to New York City and eventually sold his collection of Beat writings and artifacts to Stanford University before he died.
Kesey told me, “Writers don’t get better.” In my salad days as a journalist, I had been assigned to do a profile of Kesey for The New York Times Magazine and headed up to his Oregon farm early one spring. At the time, Kesey was involved in a fight with producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas over the screen adaptation he had written of his great novel. The producers didn’t like the script, as he had turned Nurse Ratched into a robot. I kept thinking what’s happened to Kesey? Too much LSD? What’s he doing on his farm? Kesey was nostalgic for the 1960s and spent a few nights with the surviving crew of Merry Pranksters while I was there, reminiscing about those days, smoking a joint, and doing a long verbal riff about Neal Cassady, the true life hero of Kerouac’s On the Road. Cassady died in Mexico counting railroad ties, it was reported, and Kesey told me: “When he died it was like Superman died. The sixties ended.”
Of course, California for a writer is a different landscape now. It has a wonderful ethnic dimension, captured by Amy Tan and other writers of Asian descent. It’s the scene of endless popular fiction spilling out of the pens of writers like Dean Koontz or legions of Hollywood screenwriters with fertile imaginations. There are, too, many, many writers of science fiction who’ve prospered in the promised land, and found pockets of exile and isolation to produce outstanding work. Yet no Kerouac or Kesey has emerged. There are no Merry Pranksters to speak of. We are all strangers in a strange land, as in Heinlein’s novel, waiting for new talent to take center stage. A novel about Silicon Valley can’t truly compete with events of everyday life in the Valley, which tend to outstrip fiction in their absurdity: I should know, I’ve tried. The mistress is fickle, indeed.