Thursday, September 17, 2015

Northwest Family Saga

Sometimes a Great NotionSometimes a Great Notion 
by Ken Kesey

“Look...Reality is greater than the sum of its parts, also a damn sight holier. And the lives of such stuff as dreams are made of may be rounded with a sleep but they are not tied neatly with a red bow. Truth doesn't run on time like a commuter train, though time may run on truth. And the Scenes Gone By and the Scenes to Come flow blending together in the sea-green deep while Now spreads in circles on the surface. So don't sweat it. For focus simply move a few inches back or forward. And once more...look.”   ― Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

It's the birthday of Ken Kesey who was born in La Junta, Colorado  in 1935.  He grew up in Oregon - swimming, fishing, and riding the rapids on the Willamette River with his brother, Chuck.  Kesey went to Stanford University, where he studied creative writing and when you mention his name most people respond with a reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, especially after the Academy Award-winning film version directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson enhanced its fame. But Sometimes a Great Notion, with its portrayal of family and labor discord in waterlogged Oregon timber country, resonated with many readers in the Northwestern United States and elsewhere.  I read it several years ago as example of literature about business and it is an admirable example of a genre that has produced Norris's The Octopus, Dreiser's The Financier, and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities.

Sometimes a Great Notion has Shakespearean themes played out against a natural rugged Oregon backdrop. Considered by many to be the heavyweight champion of Northwest novels, it is a huge, bold, sprawling, and brilliant narrative of one family's drive to survive and succeed. I found Kesey's style was reminiscent of Faulkner with his use of a 'stream of consciousness' approach in telling the family saga of the Stamper family. "Never give an inch" was their motto. No Northwest novel may have a more Northwest opening passage than Sometimes a Great Notion, which begins with a passage that tracks the birth of a river:

"Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River. ... The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."

Kesey does not only bring the Northwest alive, but his themes are those that humanity has pondered for centuries. Consider time:
“Time overlaps itself. A breath breathed from a passing breeze is not the whole wind, neither is it just the last of what has passed and the first of what will come, but is more--let me see--more like a single point plucked on a single strand of a vast spider web of winds, setting the whole scene atingle. That way; it overlaps...As prehistoric ferns grow from bathtub planters. As a shiny new ax, taking a swing at somebody's next year's split-level pinewood pad, bites all the way to the Civil War. As proposed highways break down through the stacked strata of centuries.”
And of course the importance of reading:
“He couldn't seem to get his teeth into anything. Except books. The things in books was darn near more real to him than the things breathing and eating.”

All of the ideas are distilled into a saga that blends Nature and the Stamper family into a story that is unforgettable. By the way, in 1970 there was film version of Sometimes a Great Notion. It starred Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, and like the book it is not nearly as popular as the 1975 film version of "Cuckoo's Nest" mentioned above. But I would encourage readers who enjoy big bold novels to check out the less-well-known novel by Ken Kesey and judge for themselves.

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Brian Joseph said...

I had hopped to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest one day. I had not previously considered this book. based on your commentary it sounds very good.

I do not think that I ever read a Northwestern Novel. This one sounds like a good one to try.

James said...


When I originally read this book I had not heard of it. Now it is among my favorite American novels.