Robert Pirsig, who wrote the unexpected bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and just one other novel, 1991's Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, died at his home in Maine on Monday, after a period of failing health, his publisher, William Morrow, announced. He was 88. Pirsig's 1974 cult classic, subtitled "An Inquiry Into Values," is a lightly fictionalized recounting of a 17-day motorcycle trip he took with his young son Chris and two other people in 1968, mixed with his philosophical musings on the tension between culture and counterculture, humans and machines, mind and body, and his own experience with schizophrenia.
Prisig was born in Minneapolis in 1928, and despite high intelligence, he was expelled from the University of Minnesota due to failing grades before serving in the Army before the Korean War. During a visit to Japan, he became interested, and then a lifelong adherent of, Zen Buddhism — though he said his novel should not be viewed as a guide to Zen, or motorcycles. He returned and earned degrees in journalism, studied philosophy, and traveled to India and elsewhere before teaching writing at Montana State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was turned down by 121 publishing houses before William Morrow took it.
The book made him wealthy, but he was so unnerved by the mostly young people showing up at his house in search of wisdom — his neighbors outside Minneapolis called them "Pirsig's Pilgrims" — that he hit the road with his wife and family, eventually settling down in Maine. He struggled to understand why his novel hit such a nerve. "I was just telling my own story," he said. "I expressed what I thought were my prime thoughts," he added, "and they turned out to be the prime thoughts of everybody else." Pirsig is survived by his wife, Wendy, son Ted, daughter Nell Peiken and her husband, Matthew Peiken, and three grandchildren; his son Chris died after being stabbed in a mugging in 1979.