Author: Ken Kesey
Mood: If you’re craving a Western rodeo story that’s definitely based on facts but still runs wild with its authentic cowboy narrative.
Sometimes a book finds its way to you in the most unlikely of ways. Last Go Round is an outstanding Western story that’s as much about great storytelling as it is about the unlikely trio of stars in the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up rodeo – a skinny white boy, an aging Black man, and an Indigenous folk hero.
And the book came to me as part of someone else’s epic story, which I HAVE to share. Feel free to skip ahead to my review (after the photo)… but if you don’t like character-driven stories then what the hell are you doing reading Ken Kesey?
In the tiny coastal city of Cannon Beach, Oregon, there is a kite shop. Everyone who’s spent any time in the area knows the kite shop; it’s the first thing you notice when you enter town on the main street, a neat little A-frame building with brightly coloured kites dancing across its street-level window. This kite shop has been a mainstay of the community longer than most of the city’s 1,554 residents.
The man who runs the kite shop is The Wizard.
Wizard is small in stature and long in beard, and he’s seen and done a bit of pretty much everything there is to do. My life is a dry, flavourless, gluten-free vegan cracker compared to his adventures – and I’ve done some stuff okay. The thing about Wizard is he’s also a great storyteller.
His soft voice somehow fills a space and carries you to other places and times on the fragrant wings of rum and weed. Needless to say, he’s very Ken Kesey.
Wizard was born in Texas, and graduated university in Indiana. He had a bright future as a businessman, but as you might guess by his name, he wasn’t exactly destined for suits and ties and paperwork. One day he sold off his assets and hopped on a bicycle across the country to see what else the world has to offer.
The first time he got a flat tire was when he reached Cannon Beach on the far coast, so that’s where he stopped. And 30 or so years later, that’s where I met him.
I was on vacation, and through his great stories and my chatterbox nature it turned out we both have a serious love of Westerns. Even though we’d only just met, he returned the next day to hand me his must-read Western – Kesey’s Last Go Round.
Not only is this an enthralling piece of cowboy fiction, but the Pendleton Round-Up is a huge part of Oregon rodeo. So I feel like I got handed a piece of both Wizard’s story, and Oregon’s.
Now let’s get to the dang review already!
Last Go Round is based on extensive research into the real people and true story of the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up – but it’s a fictional work that reimagines the sparse facts we’ve got through rich characterizations that capture what might have been going on behind the scenes.
And this story 100% needs to be made into a movie. Somebody please get on this.
Kesey adopts the narrative of eventual rodeo star Jonathan E. Lee Spain, but split between two perspectives: Spain as an old, retired bronc-buster attending a modern rodeo, and young Spain attending his first-ever competition, the Round-Up.
Spain is a tall, bright-eyed youth from Tennessee, a total nobody as far as rodeo goes. He has a good horse and aptitude galore, just no clue how it all works in actual events. Luckily he meets George Fletcher, a local rodeo favourite, and Jackson Sundown, a rodeo icon from the Nez Percé tribe.
The three men form a quick bond that builds to a complex relationship. They have plenty of late-night shenanigans, mentorship, enduring camaraderie, and sobering social challenges.
Fletcher forces Spain to enter every event despite his lack of experience, because if you know rodeo, you know that’s the only way he has an equal shot at the championship with his new best friends. Most of the book is a play-by-play of these three rodeo greats facing off against each other – and working together – in every single event to see who is truly deserving of the first world champion bronc-buster title.
Last Go Round hooked me from the first page, let me tell you. The opening scene has Spain dozing in a train’s boxcar, and suddenly Fletcher and Sundown gallop into the scene and leap across him on horseback. IMAGINE THAT IN A MOVIE!
I’ve always loved the prose of Beat Generation authors like Ginsberg and Burroughs and Kerouac. Kesey is a kind of mad bridge between the Beat and the Hippies, with hints of Hunter S. Thompson in the form of general wildness and scenes involving herbal drugs. I’m here for it.
But there’s something truly magical about the way Kesey writes, and I never would have guessed that his style would be exactly what I want in a Western.
Here, he’s turned important and diverse true stories from rodeo’s past into delicious, engaging fiction. I’ve never yet read another Western that gives equal time and reverence to white, Black, and Indigenous leads. Kesey’s writing upholds the facts, but hurls the characters into Kesey-style adventures. Spain, Fletcher, and Sundown get drunk, imbibe in hallucinogenic plants, and navigate situations that you don’t find in the history books.
You get these deep Old West characters trying hard, making mistakes, having epic wins, suffering assholes, dealing with racism and sexism, and still wholly in it for the sport.
- Spain is the talented hopeful, eager to learn but not yet equipped to deal with all-nighters and social politics – or womenfolk. He’s written in a bright manner that reveres his new friends, but isn’t afraid to question their motives.
- Fletcher is the hometown hero, skilled at wild crowd-pleasing tricks on horseback – but forced to play a dumb clown for the white audience. Kesey’s narrative style for Fletcher flows between the way he talks to his friends, and the way he talks to make white people comfortable. Fletcher is a man used to having to adapt his entire personality to social situations. It makes you look at all the shitty Black dialogue in early Westerns, novels, and history books… and realize dark things about all the layers of subtext.
- Sundown is the elegant professional horseman, with exotic marketing appeal because he’s Native – but he’s also shunned and feared for the same reason. Here we get a distinguished, aging Indigenous man who is equal parts ‘above’ his comedic BFF, and sunken to personal lows by the pressures of colonization and rodeo politics.
Last Go Round is the last book Kesey ever wrote, which is a great travesty but also gives it extra impact.
He wrote this novel in partnership with his fellow ‘Merry Prankster’ Ken Babbs. It has equal appeal for Western fans and connoisseurs of the most authentic fiction of our time. I legit thought that Kesey was actually part of the Beat Generation and this book was written in the ‘60s, so I was SHOCKED that it was published the same year we got great Western movies like Wyatt Earp and Maverick.
If you know me at all, you know what I’m going to say. Next to the classics, the best Westerns ALWAYS come out of the ’90s.