A Long, Strange Yarn: Ken Kesey and the Pendleton Round-Up

Article excerpt

READERS OF WESTERN FICTION have a seemingly endless capacity to enjoy accounts of heroes in white hats overcoming long odds to emerge victorious in the end. For over a century, there has been a steady demand for stories about such festive events as the Pendleton Round-Up, where man and beast have engaged in epic combat since 1910. According to Ken Kesey's Last Go Round: A Real Western, the early days of the Pendleton Round-Up, the social event of the year in northeastern Oregon, resembled a three-day western bacchanal. Cowboys were tossed from bulls and broncs that made them eat plenty of dirt, dogies got punched, and local bars were "packed tighter than a three-wire bale of green alfalfa." Eager rodeo fans and tourists filled the stands, and the riders usually did not disappoint. This was a combination of sport and buffoonery, of carefully judged competition and the mayhem that often followed. In one episode, Kesey writes about the famous bronc Long Tom, which had launched itself and its African American rider over the retaining fence and into the ritzy VIP section, creating "a hellacious sight, that black horse and horseman invading their privileged world like something escaped from the pit." And therein lies the appeal of Kesey's last book. He simultaneously exults in creating a rowdy western novel--the likes of which have entertained readers for years--and moves it beyond those rather narrow limits to include a critique of race and class in the American West. (1)

Kesey, the Oregonian who first came to the national literary spotlight in 1962 with One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, consistently avoided the patronizing criticism directed at many western writers. For most of the 1960s and 1970s, Kesey was best known as the "leader" of a Bay Area commune and as the central figure in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but by the 1990s he showed a renewed interest in writing about his home state. In 1994, he published his last book before his death in 2001: Last Go Round, a kind of updated pulp western that focuses on the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up. At first blush, the story merely traces the traditional outlines of the western novel. Cowboys and townsfolk collide on a disappearing frontier as each tries to separate right from wrong, with varying degrees of success, and characters can readily be pigeonholed as heroes, villains, and victims. The book includes lengthy descriptions of the standard physical elements of most westerns, from the sage-scented hillsides of Pendleton to minute details on local bars and their rough-hewn patrons. Last Go Round, like countless other westerns, can be read and enjoyed on a simple level by people attracted to the West and to its cowboy culture.

Yet the book is more than a simple tale. Kesey tells his story through the eyes of John Spain, who revisits the scene of his past glory. From his sometimes hazy, other times lucid memory of events, he recounts an improbable journey from Tennessee and even more far-fetched adventures with George Fletcher, an African American cowboy raised in Pendleton, and Jackson Sundown, a famous Nez Perce cowboy from Culdesac, Idaho. Together, these three historical figures and the literary characters Kesey creates share the literary spotlight as they vie for the top prize in the 1911 Round-Up. Along the way, Kesey, using historical and imagined characters and situations, analyzes a multitude of historical angles germane to the early twentieth-century inland Northwest: race relations and racial diversity, the ubiquity of market capitalism and acquisitive behavior, growth and development problems, and the cultural meaning of rodeos. We end up with a modernized dime western, one that complicates the old formula by giving nonwhites leading roles and by exposing the pecuniary impulses that affected heroes, villains, and everyone in-between in the Northwest.

ALTHOUGH LAST GO ROUND is a pulp western, replete with stereotypical images and a paper-thin plot, Kesey emphasizes race issues with far more complexity and sensitivity than progenitors of the western novel such as Owen Wister or Zane Grey. …