Literary License

The University of Oregon novel-writing class with our instructor Ken Kesey. Photo credit: ©Brian Lanker.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a grad student living in Eugene, Oregon, I participated in a novel-writing course with Ken Kesey, author of several novels, including Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He asked us to organize a reading in town for a visiting poet. The poet, an Australian, read his from work and Kesey read from Demon Box, his collection of essays and short stories.

One of Kesey’s pieces was set on his farm, where his son Jed was buried, the Merry Prankster bus Further sat in shocking decay in a marshy coppice, and where an unshorn sheep grazed—bringing the phrase “grass maggot” to mind. His story involved a butcher’s visit to the farm. I’d seen Kesey’s farm and cattle, and easily pictured their tansy-infested field. After the man had done his butchery, packed up, and left, the remaining cows gathered, so the story went, to encircle the bloodied tree where the ill-fated cow had been slaughtered.

Really? The story had me sitting straight up in my front-row seat.

Back when I’d still lived at home with my parents in rural Oregon, my bedroom window looked out over our horse pastures and those of our neighbor’s that adjoined them. He had cows that grazed alongside his horses. One day, a van drove to a cluster of trees close to the fence between our properties, our neighbor following on foot. The two men singled out a cow, roped it, and led it to a tree. The cow began to bellow. The others ignored it. The butcher hog-tied the bellowing animal, shot it, strung it up, and bled it out. The mobile butcher proceeded to gut and butcher the cow’s steaming carcass. He wrapped cuts of meat in white wax paper, and ground up pounds of trimmings and whatnot destined to be patted into burgers or cooked into spaghetti Bolonese.

The next day, some boys on the school bus bragged about getting ahold of the butchered cow’s head and leaving it in someone’s mailbox. Along our country roads, folks used barrels for receiving large packages. And surprises. The boys all had a good laugh imagining some poor soul fetching the mail and discovering a cow’s head staring blankly at them.

Those boys got ahold of that cow’s head repeatedly, depositing it in various barrels up and down our road over several weeks.

Imagine the state of that head over a length of time; I was sure glad we didn’t have a postal barrel.

What got me sitting rigid in my chair at Kesey’s reading was his description of his cows responding to the death of their herd mate. Having witnessed the butchering of our neighbor’s cow, it’d struck how unperturbed the other cows had been. Once their herd mate had been roped, they’d returned to grazing, looking as dumbly unconcerned by the cruel, cruel world as ever. And once the butcher had left the field? Did the herd gather in a circle around the bloody tree? Mourn the fallen?


I went up to Kesey after his reading, and said, “About that butcher story and the cows gathering to grieve—”

Kesey’s deep chuckle didn’t let me finish. “Oh, that,” he said, his eyes curing up like an imp’s, “yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of grief over that piece.” He wrapped one of his beefy arms around me and pulled me closer to his barrel chest. I could smell peppermint schnapps on his breath. “Lots of folks call out the bullshit on that one.” More chuckles (the best sounding chuckles I’ve ever known). He fished his flask of schnapps out of his vest pocket and offered it to me. “Literary license, ya know?”

A photo I took of the People Magazine article about the novel-writing class that appeared in 1988.

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