Skip to content
Aging gracefully: Ken Kesey's "Cuckoo" and "Notion"
By Richard Rayner
"He had the build of a plunging halfback, with big shoulders and a neck like the stump of a Douglas fir," wrote Malcolm Cowley, who taught Ken Kesey in a writing class at Stanford in 1960. "Chapters of a novel were read aloud in a writing class and they aroused a mixed but generally admiring response." The novel was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Penguin Classics Deluxe: 320 pp., $15), and among the other students were Peter S. Beagle, Wendell Berry, Ernest Gaines and Larry McMurtry. That must have been some writing class. "Cuckoo's Nest" was published in 1962, to a response that was more than somewhat "generally admiring" -- the book was turned into a Broadway play and, later, the Milos Forman movie with Jack Nicholson.
A much bigger, and greater, novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion" (Penguin: 736 pp.,$16), followed with amazing speed, in 1964. Kesey must have thought he could fly. Or perhaps he already sensed that he'd never do anything so good again. His friend, the novelist Robert Stone, reckons that Kesey was a natural performer, always requiring an audience, with little liking for the writer's lonely life. For whatever reason, Kesey became a test case in the nature of American celebrity. He got hold of an old bus, painted it in Day-Glo colors, gathered some friends, and set off on the cross-country road trip that was recorded by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Kesey became famous for being an acid-head, for being jailed, for being Kesey and, though he later published more books, was never quite the same writer again. He passed into part of that doomed legend, the Sixties. He died, much mourned, in 2001, and the odd and wonderful thing is, those first two novels not only hold up -- they seem better than ever.
The journals that Kesey kept while composing those books detail how serious he was about the craft of writing, and how good. He poured every chaotic impulse and vision he had into "Cuckoo's Nest" and "Notion" but found ways to keep the basic storylines clear and simple. In "Cuckoo's Nest," the "wild goose" renegade Randle P. McMurphy rolls into the mental ward like Shane coming to town and is at once set in opposition to Big Nurse Ratched who, if not exactly the villain of the fable, is certainly the representative of society's cruel and oppressive forces. In "Notion," our first clue about the logger Hank Stamper is given by an arm that Stamper has affixed to a pole in his yard, a dead man's arm with defiant middle finger sticking upward. Both books are set in Kesey's native Oregon, and both have the same blunt plot motor that served Ayn Rand in "The Fountainhead": the guy who just refuses to give in.
Rand uses the device to tell her favored story about the triumph of the individual will, while Kesey takes it in a diametrically opposed direction. The resistance of McMurphy and Hank Stamper is glorious but destroys them and brings death to others. Thus a dilemma is raised: Does America want brute individualism or the comfort and suffocation of social order? Kesey's life tells us which side he came down on, but in his fiction he didn't answer the question; instead, he explored its ambiguities in dramatic and shattering ways.
Kesey's subject was "the great wild American hollow, which is scarier than hell." Each of these books tackles the theme, though in tones that are very different, largely because of technique. "Cuckoo's Nest" is narrated solely by Chief Bromden, a schizophrenic Indian who pretends to be deaf and dumb. That's his way of surviving, and the Chief tells his story in a style that is everyday yet hallucinated, flashing with electricity and dangerous hot metal. Here he describes Big Nurse: "She's swelling up, swells till her back's splitting out the white uniform and she's let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. . . . She blows up bigger and bigger, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load."
The Chief is the enlightened witness who both brings us the awful news and is liberated by it, as novelist Chuck Palahniuk notes in his foreword to this new edition featuring jacket and flap art by graphic novelist Joe Sacco. But the Chief is paranoid too, and his voice tingles with dread of "the Combine," the malign and skewed democracy for which Big Nurse is a ruthless enforcer. "I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and what current to send up to get the results she wants," says the Chief, and we shiver with his fear.
"Notion," on the other hand, sweeps across history and is told through an intricate chain of changing points of view. To compensate, the prose itself always sits closer to what it describes. The superb opening pages establish a Western landscape that dwarfs and intimidates the men and woman that live within it. A river doesn't serve the loggers, but threatens to devour them. The forests tower with sun-blotting trees and drip with fog. So powerful and effective is the writing that these pages seem moist as you turn them. "This bounteous land, where plants grew overnight, where Jonas had watched a mushroom push through the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of a hat -- this bounteous land was saturated with moist and terrible dying," Kesey writes. Stamper and his half-brother Lee match wills and egos over Hank's wife, Viv. They both lose, but the river rolls on, eating away at everything.
It's staggering that Kesey published these two novels before he was 30. They're extraordinary in their drive, their capaciousness, their poetry, their human sympathy, and their laughter, which is always joined, in a Whitmaneseque way, by their feeling for death. Excesses may sometimes abound, but here are two American masterpieces. Dive in. Or, as Viv says to the crew-cut union organizer in "Notion": "Come on, it's fun. Look."
Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly.
The Short List: Also New in Paperback
"The Gift" by Lewis Hyde (Vintage)
A 25th anniversary edition of Lewis Hyde's brilliant and unclassifiable exploration of the nature, and value, of creativity. "All cultures and all artists have felt the tension between gift exchange and the market, between the self-forgetfulness of art and the self-aggrandizement of the merchant, and how that tension is to be resolved has been a subject of debate since before Aristotle," Hyde writes. He muses on where creativity comes from, and why it might be worth more than commerce tends to think. Which makes this book sound heavier than it is: "The Gift" is an inspiring dance around the subject of what the artist can expect.
"Black Hole" by Charles Burns (Pantheon)
A sexually transmitted disease, causing hideous transformations, plagues teenagers in the suburbs of Seattle, circa 1974. Charles Burns' graphic novel, parts of which were hailed as the "Ulysses" of the genre when they appeared serially, utilizes the conventions of shlock-horror while deftly upending them. Teenagers smoke weed, drink beer, exchange bodily fluids -- and grow weird appendages. In Burns' drawings, sex means physical horror; blackness dominates the pages, but real emotion too. This edition, with witty and ghoulish endpapers, is artwork in itself.
"Oil!" by Upton Sinclair (Penguin)
When Sinclair wrote his muckraking novel about the booming Los Angeles of the 1920s, he called it, not "Motion Picture!" but "Oil!" L.A. was still an oil town back then, thanks to strikes made by Edward L. Doheny in the 1880s and 1890s and later discoveries around Signal Hill in Long Beach, where forests of oil derricks sprang up in people's backyards. The whole city went, in the words of the Saturday Evening Post, "stark, staring, oil mad." Sinclair seized on this milieu, and the real-life, oil-driven political scandals of the 1920s, to depict an utterly corrupt world that spreads all the way to the White House. This magnetic and under-explored book is now the basis for a new movie by Paul Thomas Anderson.
"Delano" by John Gregory Dunne (University of California)
Dunne, who died four years ago, was both a sumptuous stylist and an incisive, sensitive reporter. Here he examines the impact of the California grape strike of the mid-1960s, the dispute that catapulted Cesar Chavez to prominence. "One day Chavez and a Catholic priest from Sacramento flew over the vineyards trying to make contact, via a bullhorn, with workers out of range of roadside pickets; they were both arrested for violating the grower's airspace," writes Dunne, chronicling a key moment in both Latino/American politics and the process of his own education about the state of California. His first book, and still, in some ways, his best.
"The Poems of Catullus" translated by Peter Green (University of California)
In one of his autobiographies, novelist Anthony Burgess wrote about his friend Peter Green retiring to a Greek island "to translate Juvenal at retsina-lubricated leisure." A nice picture. Green still sojourns in Greece but teaches in Texas too and, having finished with Juvenal, moved onto Catullus, a Roman poet who speaks even more clearly to the modern ear. "My friend Varus saw me lounging in the Forum,/dragged me off with him to meet his girlfriend./'Little scrubber' was my first impression/Not unsmart, though. Not entirely witless." Catullus wrote lots about sex, a subject that he treated sometimes with tenderness, other times with obscene venom. Green catches all that in his jazzy translations and erudite notes.
"Collected & New Stories" by Alan Sillitoe (Carroll & Graf)
Sillitoe shot to fame in the early 1960s when two of his early works -- the novel "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and the long story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (included here)-- were filmed with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, respectively, part of the British New Wave. Sillitoe was working class and came from Nottingham, meaning he was automatically compared to D.H. Lawrence. Another story, "The Match," in which a guy goes to see a crappy football (soccer) game, returns home and rows with his wife, who then leaves him, might more properly be compared to Raymond Carver. It has the same exact prose and the low-key, seemingly effortless style. Sillitoe is still writing, after 50 years -- a distinct British voice.
"The Complete Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon)
Another landmark graphic novel, Satrapi's "Persepolis" tells of her childhood and coming of age during the Iranian revolution, when, as a little girl more interested in listening to Kim Wilde and buying jeans than wearing a veil, she witnessed the overthrow of the shah and the arrival of the Islamic republic. The clear simplicity of Satrapi's art mingles the personal and the political with a daring that can shock and move too. Thus a huge story becomes close and intimate, like Spiegelman's "Maus," which Satrapi must have taken into her blood somewhere along the way. A film, co-written and co-directed by Satrapi herself, is soon to be released.
"The Sylph" by Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire (Northwestern)
Georgiana, the subject of an excellent recent biography by Amanda Foreman, lived a scandalous life in the highest echelons of the British aristocracy in the late 18th century. She also wrote, and published, a fact that her social standing precluded her from acknowledging in her own lifetime. "The Sylph," her novel in letters, which tells of a young beauty's marriage to a man she discovers to be a rake, sits somewhere between Jane Austen and Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." The cool-headed wit of the writing, and Georgiana's adroit handling of gambling and sex, and of how women were treated as commodities, make this feel very contemporary.
"Wolves of the Crescent Moon" by Yousef Al Mohaimeed (Penguin)
A one-eared Bedouin tribesman, sick of humiliation, quits his job as a low-level civil servant in the big city and goes to the bus station planning to flee. But he doesn't know where to go, so while he waits, other voices, other stories of loss and alienation are woven into the narrative. People run away from misfortune to find themselves facing new tragedies, and Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, in this tight novel, his first to be published in English, draws a bleak but clear and gripping picture of a Saudi society terribly divided between old and new, rich and poor. The book was banned in Saudi Arabia.
"Memoirs of an Anti-Semite" by Gregor von Rezzori ( New York Review Books)
"It was at this time I learned we had done Mr. Malik an injustice by calling him a Jew. On the contrary he was a man of high moral standards," writes one of Von Rezzori's shocking and capering Nabokovian narrators, telling the story of his life in prewar Vienna, complete with unexamined and unquestioned anti-Semitism. The effect, like a slap in the face at first, becomes funny, then bitter and sad, and has the effect of taking us afresh into a terrible historical period. Von Rezzori caused a massive stir when the work was first published in the New Yorker, and his book, newly introduced by Deborah Eisenberg, has lost none of its haunting power. *