Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey

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Leland Stamper has never forgiven his half-brother Hank for a youthful indiscretion. When Hank writes to ask for help in the family’s Oregon logging operation, Leland comes back from his East coast school to finally teach Hank a lesson. In the ragged logging community where they both grew up, things don’t go entirely as planned.

In my teens, I thought about Ken Kesey seldom, and chiefly as the rowdy miscreant of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (not that I had read it). He was a hazy, ill-behaved member of a self-important, rambunctious group that I lacked interest in. I completely failed to identify him as the author of the excellent One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book that left images in my mind that remain today (e.g., Chief throwing the heavy bathroom fixture out the window). I also didn’t connect him with Sometimes a Great Notion, another book I hadn’t read, but that I placed with Men to Match My Mountains and other inspirational (i.e., ‘dull’) books I should some day get around to.

Recently, my wife was recommended books about Oregon, including Sometimes a Great Notion and Trask. Soon after, NPR hosted a discussion about the possibility of Oregon adopting a State Book. Sometimes a Great Notion was on the list (along with The Lathe of Heaven, though I personally would go with The Word for World is Forest as having more of a Western Oregon feel). All of this came together to remind me that I liked Kesey’s writing, that I had never read Sometimes a Great Notion, and that perhaps ‘someday’ had come.

I tend not to use bookmarks. Books give all kinds of cues as to where you left off reading, from where they naturally open, to ink smudges on the edge, to remembered bits of dialogue or description. With a physical book, it’s generally an easy trick to pick up a closed book and find my place very quickly, and it’s less fiddly than using a bookmark. Sometimes a Great Notion, however, is a book without landmarks. The chapters are few and far between, the text is dense, the time-sense wanders erratically, and there’s a sameness to the description and actions. I found it difficult to recover my sense of place in the book, and eventually inserted a bookmark.

The book itself – is terrible. I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘awesome’ or ‘frightening’. I mean that it is a very bad book, and not one you should read. It’s hard to believe it’s written by the same author as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The viewpoint shifts constantly and erratically – within the same paragraph. The prose drones and slogs through a welter of half-digested metaphors and puerile yearnings. Even the setting is fairly generic – as someone suggested to me, a book about Western Oregon by someone who had heard about it, or maybe driven through it once. (To be fair, Kesey knew the area much better than that, but it doesn’t come out.)

There is a certain grand, very Greek and tragedic aspect to the plot – larger than life family members and all the wrong people having sex. Very little of it, however, is interesting. Instead, it’s a muddle of confused and mumbled vows and half-hearted longings. More than anything, it’s as if Kesey took Holden Caulfield, dropped him onto a rainy, muddy riverbank, and left him to whine about how unloved he is – for 600 pages, and without any of Holden’s redeeming grandeur of spirit. Even the ending doesn’t work – it’s as much of a soggy mess as the rest of the book.

A lot of people love this book, but for the life of me, I can’t say why. Sometimes a Great Notion is less than that – it’s a middling decent notion lost in quagmire of prose that moves like mud and obscures what it aims to reveal.

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