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Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion

Kesey’s second novel has not been nearly a successful as his first. Despite having the same basic theme – the struggle of the individual against the system – it is (deliberately) far more complex than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is set in the fictional town of Wakonda in the Oregon logging area. Henry Stamper has been struggling to make a living and has been struggling alone, refusing help from the community and refusing to join the local co-op. Henry has two sons. The first, Hank, grows up to be as stubborn as his father. The second, Leland, is the son of Henry’s second wife, a much younger woman, from a wealthy Eastern family. When he is sixteen, Hank is seduced by his stepmother and young Leland sees the act and is traumatised by it, hating his half-brother. Leland and his mother later leave for New York and never return.

Hank has a contract to provide logs and he is running a non-union business. However, there is a union strike and Hank needs help so he sends for Leland, whose mother has just killed herself, while he is going through a bad time with drugs and a failed suicide attempt. Leland does come back, not least to get his revenge on Hank. The union pressure intensifies and then everything starts to go wrong for Hank, not least of which is his half-brother’s seduction of his, Hank’s, wife. The ending sees the two brothers in a fist fight and, improbably, reconciled.

Does it work? If you like Faulkner, you will certainly see where Kesey gets his influences as this is a very Faulknerian novel. While it certainly does not have the cachet of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it is a very fine book and one that has aged well. It is more realistic than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and neither of the Stamper brothers has the charm of Randle Patrick McMurphy but the book has clearly been more carefully thought out (it took much longer to write) and is more consciously great literature.

Publishing history

First published 1964 by Viking