We’re fortunate, then, that Kesey’s literary talents were good enough so that his exploits as a celebrity of the 1960s never quite overshadowed what he managed to put down on paper.
The one-time University of Oregon wrestler, who died in 2001 at age 66 following cancer surgery, saw his first two novels go to print before he was even 30: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1962 and “Sometimes a Great Notion” (his masterpiece) two years later.
Yet he didn’t complete a third, “Sailor Song,” until 1992. For many of those years, Kesey was better known for being a member of the counterculture group the Merry Pranksters, who in 1964 toured the country in a garishly colored school bus named “Further” (Tom Wolfe’s wrote about their exploits in his 1968 essay “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”).
Of Kesey’s first three books, “Cuckoo’s Nest” is the best known. Not only is the novel well written, but it tackles an important issue – the treatment of mental patients at the midpoint of the 20th century.
Maybe more important, though, the novel was made into a 1975 Oscar-winning movie directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson – a film, by the way, that Kesey hated.
And because it deserves to be separated from the film, and to be judged on its own merits, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the book that we have chosen as the June selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
It’s not as if Kesey set out to sabotage his reputation as a writer of serious fiction. By all accounts, he was simply a spirit too restless to be reined in by the expectations of others.
A Colorado native, Kesey was just 8 years old when he moved to his grandparents’ farm in Springfield, Ore. He attended university in nearby Eugene where, from 1955-57, he posted a wrestling record of 28-6-2.
After graduation he devoted the same kind of determination to writing, and he turned out to be good enough to win a fellowship to Stanford where he was part of a crowd that included such notable talents as Robert Stone (“Dog Soldiers”) and Larry McMurtry (“Lonesome Dove”).
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is based on Kesey’s own experiences as a worker in a Palo Alto, Calif., Veteran’s Administration hospital. At its core, the novel is, as the New York Times said, “a glittering parable of good and evil.”
Kesey tells the story of an iconoclast, the red-haired Irishman Randle Patrick McMurphy, who, given the choice of going to jail or spending time in a mental institution, chooses the latter. Pretty soon, though, he finds himself battling with the evil Nurse Ratched.
If McMurphy is the quintessential rebel, Nurse Ratched serves as hall monitor for the forces of conformity.
Take the scene in which McMurphy first bonds with the novel’s narrator, Chief Bromden:
“ ‘Mr. McMurry, Could you come here please?’
“It’s the big nurse. That black boy with the thermometer has gone and got her. She stands there tapping that thermometer against her wrist watch, eyes whirring while she tries to gauge this new man. Her hips are in that triangle shape, like a doll’s lips ready for a fake nipple.
“ ‘Aide Williams tells me, Mr. McMurry, that you’ve been somewhat difficult about your admission shower. Is this true? Please understand. I appreciate the way you’ve taken it upon yourself to orient with the other patients on the ward, but everything in its own good time, Mr. McMurry. I’m sorry to interrupt you and Mr. Bromden, but you do understand: everyone…must follow the rules.’
“He tips his head back and gives that wink that she isn’t fooling him any more than I did, that he’s onto her. He looked up at her with one eye for a minute.
“ ‘Ya know, ma’am,’ he says. ‘Ya know – that is the ex-act thing somebody always tells me about the rules …’
“He grins. They both smile back and forth at each other, sizing each other up.
‘… just when they figure I’m about to do the dead opposite.’ ”
“Cuckoo’s Nest” ends up being a battle of heavyweights, though it’s ultimately an unfair contest. When confronted by nonconformists, society either bends them to its will, or it destroys them.
And McMurphy doesn’t have it in his nature to bend.
In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, college professor Robert Faggen makes it clear that “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a book that reflects the insecurity of the time in which it was written:
“Confinement, control and loneliness had been the words defining the dark moods of the cold war, still at its chilliest when Kesey entered Stanford. Though (Sen. Joseph) McCarthy himself had failed, HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was interrogating college professors and others about their political loyalties. The specter of communism, so elusive and, therefore, so difficult to control, produced a culture of suspicion and silences; those with something to hide and those who feared being misunderstood.”
Whatever drove him to write “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and then the massive “Sometimes a Great Notion” immediately afterward, Kesey seemed to lose something in that great gush of creativity.
Over the next couple of decades, his fans waited. And waited.
But the next novel didn’t come. Projects were announced. And abandoned. Kesey taught and he talked and he had kids and he lived and he wrote.
Yet he stayed in the spotlight because of his association with the Pranksters, who were every bit a symbol of the ’60s as “Cuckoo’s Nest” was a rejection of the ’50s.
Kesey did publish again. “Kesey’s Garage Sale” was a collection of short pieces and interviews. “Demon Box” was a blend of short fiction with a strong nonfiction voice. “Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear” was a children’s story.
And so on.
Nothing Kesey wrote, though, matched the quality of those first two books.
That’s his legacy every bit as much as his treks across the country in a day-glo-colored school bus.