scenes from the writing life: robert stone on ken kesey, charles manson and the california of the late ’60s



A Hollywood joke of what might be called the “Manson period”: You’re in Hollywood, you’re walking the streets, you’ve eaten nothing but bananas (what else?) for four days. As you droop at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a long black limousine pulls up beside you. The door opens: a fat man with short arms emerges. He’s wearing a beret and jodhpurs and there’s a cigarette holder between his lips. He’s definitely in the movies. He’s holding a sandwich and he says, “Hey, kid.”


Your attention is arrested. The sandwich is a very tasty-looking California sandwich, full of good things, like avocado and watercress. And you know somehow that it’s not just nourishment, but maybe…a career!


“You want this?” asks the Hollywood man. “It’s yours!”


You’re so hungry. It’s been days. You couldn’t face another banana even if you had one. You reach out. You reach out joyfully. Just at the moment when you’re about to take it, you notice that, so inconspicuously, on one corner, there’s a virtually infinitesimal but unarguably present teeny dab of shit. Naturally you hesitate. You stay your hand, you consider. Then, greedily, you seize the thing. You’re thinking: “I’ll eat around it.”


One day everything changed. One afternoon Janice and I were smoking dope with a couple of actors, a married couple, around our age. They were friends of John Wayne’s and often appeared in his westerns, and they observed that he would not have approved of their smoking gage. 


The wife had been to the beach, where she said she had seen two animals fighting. 


“What kind of animals?” I asked her, picturing, I suppose, Kodiak bears or elephant seals.


“I think…I think,” ventured the stoned lovely, “I think they were winkles.”


Everyone watched in leaden-eyed tolerance while I rolled around the fuzzy rug, convulsed. It was the funniest line I had ever heard in my life. Forty minutes later, when I had suppressed my last yak, we went outside to look over BenedictCanyon. It was the kind of Los Angeles summer day that Nathanael West could describe with such exquisitely turned admiration and loathing. Sumptuous, sensual, euphorbia-scented. Hummingbirds sipped nectar.


“That’s the house,” the young woman who had seen the animals said.


The four of us stood and looked down at an attractive greenswarded property on Cielo Drive in Bel-Air. I had stopped laughing. For quite a while we stood and looked at it. Everyone had to have a look.


I was walking into the coffee shop of the Beverly Hills Hotel the next day, and a couple of women who worked in the gift shop were in close converse. One listened open-mouthed and pale. The other, the speaker, said her husband was a deputy and had been to the house. He had seen awful things there and had been unable not to tell her.


“He said it looked like a fag murder,” the deputy’s wife said.


I filed the line away, never to use it, but her story sort of spoiled my day. I went back to the Chateau to do a joint with Janice.


“Where did you get the dope?” she asked. “Did you buy some?”


It was Jay Sebring’s dope, and he had given it to me at a party. Jay Sebring, who had named himself after the Florida seaside raceway, was now dead, a victim of the Mansonites. He had been a hairdresser from New Jersey, had reinvented himself in the Hollywood style, a nice man. He was a friend of Abigail Folger, a woman I knew a little. Abigail was born to ride in pursuit of those boars up in the CarmelValley, as beautiful a flower of California as grew. Her wealth came from coffee. She was intelligent and kind and as classy as could be. She spent a lot of time volunteering with children in Watts. Many people say they will never forget what she was like, what her smile was like, until the young nonconformists eviscerated her to write misunderstood Beatles lyrics in blood on the wall of the house on Cielo Drive.


It was saturnalia time in Hollywood, a very grim feast of the meaningless. The youngsters disappeared from the boulevard as though the bad father of the feast had eaten them. For some time Manson went uncaught and the police put out false leads. Before his capture, the most extraordinary speculations as to motive and perpetrator went around. The most unsettling involved the number of people who suspected one another of having a hand in the murders. This included famous people who used not to do such things.


Then the Manson Family went down, and the theorizing and the interpretation exfoliated. Nixon had done it. Why? To embarrass the antiwar movement. A well-known person offered a theory that naval intelligence had killed the victims, which I personally resented. A droll speculation, that one, because it involved the CNO, old Mormon Admiral Moorer, reviving the Phineas Priesthood and sending forth the assassins, all in the name of victory in Vietnam.


Fear appeared in a handful of dust. When the bearded trolls and their consorts were run out of town, fear remained. People hired bodyguards. At one house (I swear) the protection would follow a swimmer doing laps up and down the length of the swimming pool, admittedly a very long one. One movie person claimed she had fired her security when the man asked if he could come inside and play the piano.


“I’d just as soon…you know.” Indeed.


Something over five years after the John F. Kennedy assassination, and the event had something of the same resounding emptiness. Hollywood is a self-referential place and then as now it was full of rise and fall and blighted hopes, anger, disappointment, dope, and toadying and jealousy. Everything except maybe good sex. Suddenly something happens that makes everything even less sensible and significant than before, the total nothingness at the heart of thingness explodes in front of you. Not everyone’s a philosopher. Never did the lights go on so fast and the glitz come off the columns and the glass balls shatter as in the wake of a couple of murders.


Things could not be made to be the same. There was an earthquake, really–a small one, but we felt it at Oblath’s.


A number of people who were friends or acquaintances of Kesey passed through town. Kesey’s credo was that nothing human was alien to him, and most folks were close enough. Ken’s friends, a wandering band known as the Hog Farm, had coalesced around a cultural figure who called himself Wavy Gravy. Wavy had once been a cafe poet in New York and had followed the sixties trail to California, where some transcendent experience had provided him with a renewed identity and new name. One of the stories current about him was that he had been cashiered from the comedy troupe the Committee for appearing for a show in a tweed jacket with salami arm patches. The Hog Farmers were fine young people for all I ever knew, but it was bruited about that they spent some time out at the Spahn Movie Ranch with the Mansonites. Me, I was a friend of Kesey’s, too, a friend of a friend of Richard Baba Ram Dass Alpert, who had bum-tripped me back when. Alpert was the ex-colleague of Timothy Leary, who knew everyone and had connections with the Brotherhood of Eternal Life, who were considered heavy. And connections proliferated. Leary’s “archivist” was my NYU and Paris pal Michael, the man who would go on to become the father of a beautiful movie star, although this was naturally unknown at the time. We were smoking Jay Sebring’s dope, and so on and so on.


As the summer of 1969 lengthened, there was a whole lot of shaving going on in

Los Angeles. Good-humored tolerance of the neo-bohemian scene was suspended, and whatever it was was not funny. Fear inhibited.

We decided to go back to England. Life was sane, sort of, and relatively predictable. Before setting out for London we went to what might be called a farewell party. Nitrous oxide was currently big on the scene. In the nineteenth century, many will know, it played a role in American scientific and intellectual history. At Harvard, the very place Ram Dass and Leary were experimenting with LSD and turning students on to William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience and brother of Henry, the brother of the master novelist had conducted his own experiment with nitrous oxide, some eighty-odd years earlier. Nitrous oxide was used early as an anesthetic in dentistry, and Harvard students had taken to frolicking with the stuff. So joyous were the cries of delighted insight that Professor James heard echoing through the Yard that the liberal-minded and adventurous scholar thought he might try some.


One evening the savant set a tank by his bed, connected to a pipe. As the chimes sounded across the gables, Professor James passed into a profound reverie. Suddenly he came to consciousness, his intellection ablaze with discovery. He had happened, with the aid of this wonderful elixir, on the very meaning–but the very meaning!–of life. Pen and ink were at hand. No sooner had he time to write than a second drowsy numbness passed over him. In the morning he awakened to the merry bells. Leaping from his stern scholar’s bed, he seized the sheet of paper upon which he had inscribed life’s meaning.


This is what he had written:


          Hoggamous Higgamous, Man is Polygamous
          Higgamous Hoggamous, Woman is Monogamous.

How true! And even the obvious must be reexperienced down the generations. That this wisdom not perish but be found by each age in its time may have been the reason for the sudden very-late-sixties popularity of nitrous oxide.


Another joke of the era:


“Man, can you fix me with a doctor that writes?”


“No, man. But I can put you with a hip dentist.”


Anyway, nitrous oxide and its discontents. The party we were attending was indeed a farewell party, since we were bound back to England, now home. But it was, further, a farewell party for the late owner of the nitrous oxide, a graduate student who had delighted in taking his gas while relaxing in a hot bath. While asoak, the luckless man passed out. While he was out, his head slipped beneath the water to rise…never.


Farewell, as Poe observes, the very word is like a bell, and Poe and this graduate student I’m certain would have liked each other.


There was a lot of gas left over, which was good because there were a lot of us there. Here I steel myself for confession. Few readers will fail to experience outrage at what I now feel bound to disclose. But if there is a God in heaven–William James would have known it.


All right, our kids were with us. Everybody’s kids were with them. So we were doing gas with balloons, and you know how kids are with balloons. I mean you had to be there. It was a beautiful day. The kids were having such fun! There was so much gas. And it was hardly as though the late owner of the gas were lying there drowned in a bathtub; he had passed on, and he certainly didn’t require any more gas.


And the kids so liked the balloons, and of course they liked the gas too, taking the gas from the balloons. How this happened, what happened next, nobody is sure because everybody was ripped and fighting greedily over the gas, and the children were fighting greedily over the gas too. So to square it, even-steven it, we declared, we the adult authority, come on, kids, just one balloon’s worth to a kid.


When, would you believe, this one little tyke made this snarky face right at me and said ha ha or hee hee or some shit, “These aren’t balloons! They’re condoms!” And by the spirit of William James, they were condoms. We’d been getting loaded watching small innocent children sucking gas from condoms.


So if the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had finally caught up with me there, would not the cry have been: Exterminate the brutes!


So we left for London.


—from Robert Stone’s memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties

céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 


. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 


Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 


—just then—




—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 


—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”

Cover Image


Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…


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