There is a moment when I finish a good book that feels like coming up for air after being long underwater. This is especially true of a big book. It’s a baptism of sorts. You don’t know really what you’re getting into. You look around and under you go. When you come up with a gasp, everything is new. Part of you wants to go back under. Part of you wants to do it again. The rest of you wonders what the hell is different about you. You know you’ve changed, but how? Then the moment passes, and life goes on as it was…until the next good book.
This morning I sat at my desk in the windowed office that I do so enjoy, with the remains of my morning coffee and a stale doughnut. My back was to the window and the doughnut was in my mouth as I finished Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I wish I would have waited a moment before popping that last bite of doughnut into my mouth. I wish that I had forethought enough to have swiveled my chair around to stare pensively out the window, to look out at the changed world.
But that’s all hyperbolic bullshit.
Books take their place in our lives. Any review, positive or negative, is really a way of fitting the book into our own story, our narrative, our memoir.
I came to Sometimes a Great Notion on the recommendation of my former English professor Johnny Wink. The recommendation was indirect. He made a comment on a picture I posted on Facialbook about how the pic confirmed for him that I was a character from Kesey’s novel resurrected. Having never read the book, I wasn’t sure how to take that comment. Knowing Johnny to be a kind teacher and friend, I assumed he meant the comment as a compliment, yet the characters initially seemed unflattering. Was I Hank the stubborn countrified exemplar of rugged manliness? Or was I Leland the citified exemplar of the effete scholar?
Sometimes a Great Notion is not a small book, and it’s probably not the kind of novel that could even get published today: too many words, too long on rambling interior monologues, too short on plot. This is Kesey’s second novel. His follow up to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and written before he became known for his acid trips (according to the Wikipedia, the infamous cross-country acid trip immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was prompted by Kesey’s need to travel to NYC in order to arrange for the publishing of SaGN.) The story is rather simple, two half-brothers in a family that is both close-knit and dysfunctional. They are reunited after years of distance, both grown up, still mistrusting of each other, and they must work together at the family logging business. Their work is morally questionable. They are a non-union logging company taking advantage of a union strike to make some extra cash. But the real story is the internal struggle. Brother against brother, but in a quiet, understated way. Kesey’s use of internal dialogue and monologue is what drives this story. Gorgeous, disjointed sentences and paragraphs keep the reader ticking off pages.
After a few hundred pages, I was fully submerged. I live now in a smallish log cabin in the Ozarks. The rain was beating the cabin for days and I sat on my porch, laid in my bed, curled up on the chair or the floor, reading this story of rain and brothers. They battle the land as much as each other. The battle against the land is illustrative of their struggle with each other. The rain kept me from my own work on my land. There’s a garden to tend. There is a forest to manage and a pond. Yet, I had my book.
I saw how I embodied both Hank and Leland. Their struggle is my own inward struggle. The story was about me.
And therein is the magic of Sometimes a Great Notion.
I highly recommend this book.