One of the pleasures of no longer being a college undergrad under no compunction to write callow and pretentious essays about books you barely understand to be read by bored professors or TAs is that you can go back to books that suddenly resonate with clarity after you’ve packed away some years of experience.
This is about a massive but rewarding book that deserves attention in a time when attention spans seem to dictate that novels weigh in at under 300 pages.
Sometimes a Great Notion is a monumental work that draws you in and gradually envelopes you like the fog curling through the branches of the sugar pines, tamaracks, silver spruce and acacias spreading up from the Pacific coast of Oregon and into the logging town Ken Kesey calls Wakonda.
Kesey charged down to Stanford from his family’s dairy farm in the Willamette Valley after graduating from the University of Oregon in 1959 and staked his place in the creative writing program led by Wallace Stegner and Malcolm Cowley, asking to be taken seriously as a writer.
He brought a manuscript with him and when he read passages from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Cowley and fellow seminarians, Robert Stone, Edward Abbey and Larry McMurtry, Cowley, the top editor at Viking Press, took notice and soon shepherded the book through publication at his publishing house, and Kesey was on the way to stardom. Cuckoo’s Nest made him a writer to be reckoned with. The book would be optioned by actor Kirk Douglas and would be adapted into a stage play and later an Academy Award-winning movie.
But his second novel, Great Notion, is his masterpiece. After reading the manuscript of the 1964 novel, his friend Stone would say “Christ, there is no competing with this guy.”
Kesey would say that he worked on his mammoth of a book—It’s more than 600 pages—30 hours a day, and he would always hold that in this work he had given the best of what he had to offer. But he wasn’t constituted to spend his days alone in quiet rooms. He was a fabulist, a showman, gregarious and sociable—some would later call him the pied piper of hippiedom.
He left his writing loft in the house he shared with his wife and three young children in the hills above Palo Alto and assembled his Merry Pranksters, with whom he would travel the country in the old school bus dubbed Furthur (the later incarnation was Further) and whose adventures would be chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book which demonstrated Wolfe’s sharp eye for detail and his tendency to miss the essence of his subject matter.
Great Notion is Shakespearian in its themes. It is the chronicle of the Stamper family, whose patriarch at the turn of the 20th century leaves behind the flatlands of Kansas, ventures to the far western edge of the continent and homesteads land in the forested village of Wakonda—a made up place that for Kesey is emblematic of the rugged, verdant, naturally unforgiving and sometimes rewarding land where the rare sunny day is obscured by arboreal canopies.
It is here that Jonas Stamper would bury a wife and raise three sons, whom he later abandoned to flee back to Kansas, leaving the young ones—Henry is just 16—to finish building the house he started along with his fledgling logging business. Jonas would claim the land had been misrepresented in the real estate brochures. It wasn’t the way he thought it would be. Rather than offering elbow room, “there was nothing…about the country that made a man feel big and important. If anything, it made a man feel dwarfed.”
For old Jonas the land “was permeated with dying; this bounteous land, where plants grew over night, where Jonas had watched a mushroom push from the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of hat.” It spooked him.
His son Henry, who had known nothing else, looks at it differently. He builds a small lumber empire and he grows into a crusty, hard drinking, tobacco-chewing lumberjack with a son, Hank, whom he grooms to take charge of the family business. After Henry’s wife and Hank’s mother dies, the older man—at 51—takes the train back to New York to find a young wife and brings back Myra, 30 years his junior. It isn’t a marriage made in heaven, but it brings into the picture a second son, Leland, who is destined to become Hank’s rival and the antagonist in the story.
This is an experimental novel that hits you from every angle. Kesey uses a narrative scheme that takes some getting used to but finally grabs you by the neck and pulls you deeper and deeper into the story. The narration shifts among characters, sometimes two or three times within a paragraph, or within a stretch of dialogue.
The story is sometimes told omnisciently, but often by a character in the book commenting in italics or parentheses. It takes some time to grapple with the scheme, but it is well worth the effort. You find yourself continuously fact checking the reliability of what you’re reading against what you have come to know about the character telling it.
Early in the book, at the birth of Hank, Henry receives the only gift his derelict father Jonas has ever sent. It is a copper-plated plaque that says, “Blessed Are the Meek, for They Shall Inherit the Earth.” Henry quickly paints over it the words “NEVER GIVE AN INCH” and hangs the plaque over the young Hank’s bed. Hank would later mock it. It was, he says, “Just like the corny, gung-ho, guts-ball posters that I have seen a good thousand of…like the mottos you might see in a Marine sergeant’s orderly office.” But, though in his clearest moments he can see through the epigram in fact it drives his life through triumphs and perhaps is his downfall.
Another way to look at what drives the story is in the phrase, “the man who seeks revenge digs two graves.” Because this is a revenge story with no winners. Hank, like Ahab, is struggling against twin leviathans that won’t give him an inch: a deadline for downing trees without the manpower behind him to do it and the vengeance waiting to burst out on his younger brother Leland. Like McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest, Hank Stamper is in mortal combat with forces of a machine that will try to break him.
There is a pervasively sad lyricism in the book. When Viv, Hank’s wife and briefly Leland’s lover, pores through a family album, she reflects: “That had been so long ago. And that dream of a little girl that had helped the moon and stars forge so painstakingly…now remained only as an ambiguous lump to mock the little girl who had dreamed it so long ago.”
What the story has become is a lesson in how the family dictum “NEVER GIVE AN INCH” ravages not only Hank and Leland but all the gentle souls in their orbit: Viv, Hank’s cousin Joe Ben, old Henry. Call it hubris. In a winner-take-all game there are the inevitable losers—and no real winner.
This is a book that deserves more than one look. Like most great novels you read it once to understand the mechanism, how the gears work, the geography. And then you return, as you return to Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, to luxuriate in the texture of the language and the world of the characters.
Robert Stone in The New Yorker would later say of his friend:
“All his life he was searching for the philosopher’s stone that could return the world to the pure story from which it was made, bypassing syntax and those damn New York publishers. He kept trying to find the words that God had written in fire. He traveled around…telling stories and putting on improvised shows for crowds of children and adults. If he had chosen to work through his progressively revealed mythology in novels, rather than trying to live it all at once, he might have become a writer for the age.”
It was many years before Kesey would publish The Demon Box and Sailor Song, in which was embedded a children’s story for which he would dress in elaborate Inuit medicine man costume to read to groups of children. (I saw him do this once in Los Angeles before a captivated crowd of youngsters.) The later works don’t match up to his masterful first two novels. But we can be grateful for the legacy he has left. His whole life was a creative work.
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