Tom Eblen: Author Ed McClanahan, known as Captain Kentucky, publishes new stories

Writer Ed McClanahan works in his home office in Lexington, surrounded by memorabilia from this colorful life.
Writer Ed McClanahan works in his home office in Lexington, surrounded by memorabilia from this colorful life.

After lying low for a few years, Captain Kentucky is back, resuming his epic quest to make the world safe for quirky characters and good storytelling.

Lexington author Ed McClanahan this week publishes a collection of stories from a creative writing class he taught at the University of Kentucky. And, in October, he will mark his 79th birthday with the publication of I Just Hitched In From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader (Counterpoint, $18.95).

McClanahan might be known best for his 1983 novel, The Natural Man, the hilarious story of a teenage boy's coming of age in 1950s small-town Kentucky. But McClanahan also is famous for the company he kept during the 1960s and 1970s.

Known by his hippie moniker Captain Kentucky, McClanahan was one of author Ken Kesey's band of "merry pranksters." Their psychedelic drug-induced shenanigans were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his landmark "new journalism" story, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

McClanahan first attracted attention as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1962, which put him in California just as the counter-culture scene was blooming. He has published nine previous books and many magazine stories. In 1974, Playboy published his profile of Lexington music legend Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, backwards, upside-down guitar player.

McClanahan's long hair turned white years ago, but he has lost little of his zeal. That was clear as we chatted in his home office, which is stuffed with memorabilia from a colorful life enthusiastically lived.

McClanahan said he had tired of teaching after a long academic career at Oregon State, Stanford, the University of Montana, Northern Kentucky and UK. But he returned to UK to teach a creative writing class in fall 2009 after a two-decade absence.

Once he got to know his eclectic class of 13 students, McClanahan decided they should write and edit a book. The result is Horsefeathers: Stories From Room 241 (Wind Publications, $15), with a cover illustration by Lexington artist John Lackey.

McClanahan had been intrigued by the concept of writers editing one another's work since he helped publish a California literary magazine four decades ago. "Our editorial policy then was that we never turned anything down," he said. "We did have someone send in a 400-page novel that was awful. We managed to lose it."

The writing students who contributed to Horsefeathers included a UK management professor and a 69-year-old woman "who wrote the raciest story in the book." Class member Scotty Adkins, an English graduate student, helped organize the project.

Class discussions often continued over dinner, with McClanahan entertaining everyone with his tales about hanging out with writers such as Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Truman Capote. "Ed doesn't have a snooty bone in his body," Adkins said. "He takes the craft seriously, but he doesn't take himself seriously."

Readers can have their own McClanahan experience this fall. His new anthology includes 14 new and previously published pieces of fiction, non-fiction and stories that fall somewhere in between.

I Just Hitched In From the Coast includes the 2002 story, Fondelle, Or: The Whore with a Heart of Gold. It was inspired by an incident that happened to McClanahan during his first big adventure, hitchhiking back to Kentucky in 1954 from a summer of working on road crews in California's Yosemite National Park.

McClanahan said a preacher had just left him in a swamp near Beaumont, Texas, when he was picked up by a one-armed asphalt salesman. The salesman was driving a new car he had bought for the prostitute he was taking to New Orleans to marry. McClanahan was quickly recruited to be the best man.

The wedding plans fell apart, and McClanahan, hung over from heavy drinking on Bourbon Street, decided a Greyhound bus would be an easier way to get home. Still, he had the presence of mind to have the bus driver drop him off just short of Maysville so he could thumb a ride for the last few miles.

The strategy paid off when a high school buddy witnessed his triumphal return. "Where you been?" the friend asked, giving McClanahan the opportunity to reply with all the sophistication a 22-year-old could muster: "I just hitched in from the coast."