Published by Penguin Books
Publication date: July 28th 1977
Genres: Fiction, Literary
When I learned that Ken Kesey grew up in Oregon I thought I was long overdue to read one of his books. I had seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and didn’t think I needed to revisit that subject so I opted for his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion.
The story is set in Oregon logging country in the early 1960s. It catches the Stamper family (aptly named) at the height of a crisis, already debilitated by tragedy, but apparently not down for the count. The ending (which I won’t spoil!) is one of those where you read it, shake your head, and read it again. You can do this as often as you want- it won’t change a thing and is one of the things that makes this a classic.
What an interesting work and what a perfect reflection of the man himself. Kesey participated in CIA sponsored psychoactive drug trials in the late 1950s and his narrative often reads as if he were still high- a stream of consciousness or a free verse poem. He brazenly flouts what are considered some basic precepts of good writing namely, writing from one viewpoint (either a character or an omniscient presence) and instead lets virtually every character in the novel narrate. That’s not unheard of anymore but Kesey lets them do so within the same paragraph. This makes for a very long ride and no opportunities to coast. In one paragraph you could have the father and both his sons weighing in with a line or two from one of their wives and a cousin. Incredibly intense. Also, a lot of the narrative is unspoken- the characters’ thoughts and recollections- so the reader is moving between the past and the present at the same time.
Given the complexity of the writing I was almost ready to let go at the halfway point. Logging and crusty, prideful men are not great subjects of interest to me. I kept on and soon found myself immersed in the story and its rhythm. Kesey’s mastery of language, even in its most free flowing tilt-a-whirl form, grabs you and you feel compelled to see it through. Much like the rain that permeates the lives of these Oregonians you are soaked. This rain, present on almost every page is another example of Kesey’s gift. Each instance is different and just as the Eskimo’s have over a hundred words for snow, he has almost that many descriptions of rain- all recognizable to anyone who’s lived here for any length of time.
For me, this book is a classic much like reading Virginia Woolf or Henry James. You must read every word, even when a paragraph stretches for pages. The use of language- jarring and jagged as it is- is critical. Sometimes it feels like too much work as we are becoming more and more used to bytes, even in our books. I love Candace Bushnell and Sophie Kinsella but they can be read (and forgotten) in two days. Reading great books like this remind me of the true beauty and importance of each word. It is slow going but even that is nice when everything around us seems to be spinning faster and faster. Settle in and absorb Sometimes a Great Notion. You won’t regret it.
Ken Kesey September 17, 1935- November 10, 2001