Title: Sometimes A Great Notion
Author: Ken Kesey
Length: 625 pages
Year of Publication: 1964
Ken Kesey occupies a peculiar space in American fiction; a little too young to be counted firmly among the cohort of the Beats but a bit too old fashioned to be truly of and by the Hippie generation. Sometimes A Great Notion is very much a product of this tension. The author considered it his greatest work, although he’s certainly better known for the shorter novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, doubtless due in no small part due to the excellent adaptation starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.
Notion is a rambling but powerful book. At its core, it is a drama about the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of ‘gyppo’ loggers, the Stampers, in rural Oregon in the early 1960s. ‘Gyppo’ in this case refers not to ‘gypsies’ but rather signifies a group of independent loggers not associated with a union or company. The initial tension provided in the book has to do with the Stampers’ refusal to join a logging strike called by the foresters’ union in the (fictional) town of Wakonda, where the book is set.
The real tension of the book, however, is one of dueling identities and clashing motivations between two sons of the Stamper family. Hank, the scion of the grizzled, almost mythical patriarch, Henry Stamper, has lived a stubborn and desperate life in Wakonda trying to live up to the family motto of ‘Never Give A[n] Inch’. Leland is Hank’s much younger half-brother who long ago left the family to live out east with his mother and attend school at Yale. Leland has a powerful, traumatized hatred of Hank stemming from Hank’s long affair with Leland’s mother during the former’s childhood, and returns to the clan in Oregon on a mission of unspecified but deeply-felt revenge.
Kesey’s narrative style is at once beautiful and frustrating. There were more times than I could count that I stopped to re-read a lovely sentence. The writing about the wet, seething Pacific Northwest in particular is often freighted with an almost Biblical awe: “And the vines and tides climb; and mildew stalks the front-room rug where Hank left wet footprints; and the river roams the fields like a glistening bird of prey.” But there are also elements to Kesey’s writing style that could be, sometimes, a chore to read.
One of these elements is his tendency to flip between narrators in a single scene without clear indication. Although Kesey is very good at making each character’s voice distinctive, there are scenes in which he might jump-cut between three different people without attribution, leaving the reader dazed trying to follow the thread of action. Some of this bears the clear fingerprints of his Beat Generation DNA, as I mentioned earlier. Kerouac and Ginsburg are echoed heavily in some of Leland’s longer philosophical asides, and although always well written, these miniatures forays into Howl territory sometimes feel more like the author’s ruminations on mid-century American life and less like integral devices for exploring character or advancing plot.
My other qualm comes with the driving force of sexual trauma in the book, which often turns on Oedipal and Freudian themes that (to the modern reader) can come off as a bit hackneyed and occasionally a little sexist. As the story progresses, Hank’s original sin of adultery with Leland’s mother feels more and more flimsy as a justification for Leland’s profound self-loathing. Likewise, Hank’s wife Viv, the object of both the main characters’ affections, is described beautifully and with delicate complexity in the first 150-odd pages of the novel, but later becomes more of a device to propel the brothers to their climactic denouement.
That being said, I think this is still one of the best books I’ve read all year. The story doesn’t so much walk as meander along, with dozens of tragicomic asides and diversions that give the tale almost the feel of a Greek tragedy as the two brothers reluctantly spiral to their inevitable doom (in the old sense of the word). Fate and free will are crucial themes in the story, and Kesey does a masterful job weaving the old threads of solidarity and stubbornness of the first half of the 20th century to the free individualism and social atomization of the 60s. Sometimes A Great Notion is a book that demands patience from the reader, to say nothing (at over 600 pages) of persistence. But I came away from it feeling that this book more than merits both. I’d strongly recommend it.