Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sometimes a Great Notion (Ken Kesey) (10.0/10.0)

Sometimes a Great Notion (Penguin Classics)That this greatest work of iconic, if underappreciated, American author Ken Kesey is not more widely read is, we consider, one of the great tragedies of modern American literary culture. Kesey is generally best known for his groundbreaking 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and his role as the leader of the cross country- and LSD-tripping Merry Pranksters, whose exploits were famously chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Both are excellent works and well worth a read, especially if you have interest in either the Beat Generation (whose individualistic ideals and perspective Kesey largely inherited) or the drug-fueled love-fest of West Coast America in the 1960’s and 70’s. But any lover of great literature, particularly great American literature, and particularly particularly great male American literature, is doing himself a serious disservice by ignoring what is undoubtedly Kesey’s greatest work, Sometimes a Great Notion.

The novel chronicles the Stamper family of Oregon, whose fiercely-independent and hard-scrabble life is played out among the teeming, danger-filled forests that they log and on the banks of the Wakonda River, whose waters have eroded the land about the Stamper family home to the point that the live on a virtual island. Like the setting, the characters are well-drawn and endlessly interesting, from the half-crazed patriarch, Henry Stamper, to the physically brutal but dependable eldest son, Hank Stamper, to the patient loyalty and creeping desire of Hank’s wife, Vivian Stamper, to the softer intellectual person of Leland Stamper, the estranged half-brother of Hank who returns to the family logging business just as the Stampers stand off against powerful union interests, which demand that the family shut down operations to support an ongoing loggers strike.

But it is not just the compelling story of rugged individualism and fierce family loyalty that makes this perhaps the greatest novel ever written in American Literature (and we say perhaps only because we have not read them all). Kesey also innovates in style, using a technique of multiple first-person, stream of consciousness accounts of thought and action to bring the gritty characters to life. The points of view move from person to person furiously over the course of a single page and the reader can imagine the 72-hour amphetamine-fueled stints that Kesey admitted to in his writing of it. Whatever your criticisms of his technique, the effect is pure artistry—a symphony of action and emotion that builds to a crescendo that pits the Stamper family against all the arrayed forces of man and nature.

We have no problem placing this book at the top of our list of books for men and recommend it above all others for its incredible story and innovative style.


  1. I completely agree with your review of Kesey's greatest work. I definitely think this was the last essential American novel ever written.

  2. I read this book 3 months ago and still think about it everyday. I never thought a book could be so powerful and real. I feel like I lived in Wakonda that year.