Friday, November 6, 2009

Ken Kesey: Sometimes A Great Notion (1964)

A month after I wrote this, I finally finish this book. Got through the last hundred or so pages on a flight out of Eugene, and on a train and in a hotel restaurant in New Jersey. That is, I started this quintessential Oregon book just after arriving in the state, and only finish it once I've left (although the leaving is only for a weekend).

I'm not sure if I have much to add to what I wrote last time. Or even to Charles Bowden's formulation in the introduction: "The choice presented is between a brutal individualism that we all secretly love, but can no longer afford, and a dreary collectivism that stills our heart when we even think about it." Chew on that for a while.

It is, among other things, a Labor Movement novel. And, specifically, a Western labor movement novel. Reminded me of Wallace Stegner's great Joe Hill in that regard. It centers around the Stamper clan in the fictional town of Wakonda Auga on the Oregon coast. The whole region is (in the novel) dependent on logging, and the Stampers are in it, too, running their own outfit. The rest of the town goes on strike, but the Stampers (who only hire relatives, and keep them non-unionized) refuse to join, instead seizing all the lumber company contracts and monopolizing their business. So the town hates the Stampers, who are making the strike ineffectual, and therefore keeping the town out of work. And the Stampers - well, they just don't give a damn.

Onto this individual vs. collective struggle we have grafted an almost Biblical struggle between two half-brothers in the Stamper clan: Hank, the young virile tough head of the family business, and Lee (Leland Stanford Stamper: awesome name), the bookish alienated son of Hank's father Henry's second wife. Hank had a sexual relationship with Lee's mother; Lee knew about it, and it destroyed his childhood; now, in the wake of a failed suicide attempt, he drops out of grad school at Yale and comes back to help Hank fulfill the lumber contract and, oh yes, to get revenge on Hank somehow.

Hank, then, is the novel's big representative of romantic, heroic, doomed, destructive individualism - although his old father Henry is still around, and he's even scarier. And Hank's scary physicality is set out in opposition to Lee - but Lee hardly represents the community side. In fact, we gradually come to realize that Lee's intellectualism is just as bullying, just as exploitative, as Hank's physicality, and that he's just as driven by his own desires, and blind to the welfare of those about him, as is Hank. They're both egotists.

Which means the community side doesn't get a particularly charismatic spokesman. But of course that's the point. Community isn't romantic. It's deadly dull to the romantic individualist. It's spiritual death. So those who are in the right position to speak for it (union organizer Draeger, local union rep Floyd Evenwrite) are pretty dull men.

But they're not set out as mirror images or opposites to Hank. Instead, and appropriately enough, Kesey gives us, as representatives of community, the whole damn community. Part of what makes this book so long and such a slog is that Kesey has committed himself to following the stories (in an up-close, stream-of-consciousness way) not only of the main Stampers, but of what feels like a couple dozen townspeople. Everyone from, literally, preachers to prostitutes. All walks of life. We get inside all their heads, sometimes following one of these minor characters for pages at a time, sometimes getting a whirlwind tour of what all of them are up to at any given moment. It's a very effective group portrait of this town. You come out of the book feeling like you know it as well as you can know any place in modern American fiction. (Is this modern? In important ways, it's not: all to the good.)

But that's not the true beauty of this novel, which is that above and beyond the rich themes, the vividly realized characters, and the (eventually, sort of) gripping story, we get a lot of very poetic evocations of nature. Ken Kesey could write like an angel when he wanted to, and he frequently wanted to while writing this book, if passages like this are any indication:

"And in the tops of the huge trees, the very rain seemed to work at fixing the trees standing, threading the million green needles in an attempt to stitch the trees upright against the sky" (p. 567).

An essential book.

No comments: