Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

It's a measure of how much things have changed, here on the West Coast of North America, that the author of the 1960's classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey, could follow up his countercultural epic with a novel about a family logging company on the Oregon coast.

And not just a family logging company, either, but a multigenerational, frontier-busting, hands-on logging family, and not just a novel, either, but a novel that almost deserves the glossary provided at the back of small-press volumes of logging fiction and logging poetry (and also unforgettable romance novels about logging).

In capsule form, the plot follows the Stamper family's efforts, in their non-union company, to get enough timber to the mill contracting them during a strike that has kept the union saws idle. The complication is that the elder Stamper has been injured, leaving his son to run things on his own, and then his son from a second marriage flees grad school (English literature!) in the Northeast arrives with complicated desires of revenge and belonging. Will they get the logs to the mill? Will the family survive? Will the manly remain manly?

The thing is, though, that unlike virtually every other work of logging fiction, Sometimes a Great Notion isn't the kind of novel that would have been appreciated by loggers working in the times generally depicted in these kinds of works: the 1930s through, at the very latest, the early 1960s. Kesey uses all the Beat-type tools here, especially proto-postmodernist narrative instability and loose baggy monster sentence structure, such that readers regularly encounter 200-word sentences that contain the interior monologues of two or three characters.

It's not impenetrable, and the more time you spend with it, the more you get used to the stylistic eccentricities, but me, I can't help reading these kinds of works with my father and grandfather in mind, and I just can't see them reading Sometimes a Great Notion without derision, even if the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and its readers regard it as the definitive novel of the Pacific Northwest.

Am I underestimating them? Kesey was remarkable, after all, fitting comfortably as he did into a Stanford writing program taught by Wallace Stegner that featured Kesey, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, and others, and I don't disagree with Kesey's own assessment in the Paris Review of Sometimes a Great Notion: "It's my best work, and I'll never write anything that good again." But at bottom, it's not that the book is too smart for them, so much as divorced from their standard reading material.

And also, I really need to watch the Paul Newman movie made from this novel:


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