on November 18, 2001
This is the Kesey novel that nobody read after One Flew Over the Cuckoos nest stole all its thunder. Although it was filmed with an great cast (Henry Fonda, Paul Newman) it never gained the reputation that its inferior sibling achieved.
This is, quite simply, one of the great classics of the 20th century. Its pace and moody evocation of the American North West are stunning. The collision between the traditional and the modern, the past and the present make riveting, enthralling reading.
The Stamper family are loggers, rough, hard men and women who care for no ones opinion but their own. They are fighting the union, the neighbours, the town, their whole world. Their motto of "never give an inch" was the title of the film of the book. Into the strike-breaking start of the book comes the dope-smoking, college educated half brother, the prodigal son. His arrival triggers a tidal wave of events that spiral gradually out of control until everything that has been permanent before is now threatened.
If I seem vague in this review it is simply that I don't want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering this story for yourself. This is one of the forgotten masterpieces. A book to be read, and then passed on to friends who are later bullied to give it back to be read again.
on April 29, 2005
Sometimes A Great Notion is, in my humble opinion, one of the finest pieces of American literature. I read this book when I was 18, 25, 33, 45 and now once again at my half-century mark. With each read the book has taken on more meaning, more clarity, more subtlety--more importance to living itself.
When I heard of Kesey's passing recently I felt a remorse, a sadness that I had never gone out of my way to meet him and look him in the eye and tell him that this one work of his had touched my life in many ways, moreso than almost any other book I've read.
Other reviews here sum up the narrative well, but there is one passage near the end that cuts far into the meat of the novel:
"...there is always a sanctuary more, a door that can never be forced whatever the force; a last inviolable stronghold that cannot be taken, whatever the attack. Your vote can be taken, your name, your innards, even your life. But that last stronghold can only be surrendered--and to surrender it for any reason other than love is to surrender love..."
An important lesson for us all. We can only hope that Ken has found his eternal sanctuary.
Like "Cuckoo's Nest", this novel is as big and as expansive as the Pacific Northwest it is set in, where Kesey spins the colorful tale of a ogging family pit by circumstance against big business and the negativity of small town America. Describhed with his usual kaliedoscopic powers of wonderfully flowing detail and color, this is a complex and multi-layered tale, with more than enough ingredients for sustained exploration and interest; passion, betrayal, the intricate inner workings of an interesting family of individuals who love and need each other but at the same time want and need to stretch and grow, to be more than just who they are within the confines of that family.
In a sense this book is a almost a deliberate self-parody; Kesey shows there are many more ways to be a man than through the mere use of what are usually thought of as masculine characteristics. Thus we have a character like Hank, the ultimate bad-ass Stamper counterposed by Leland, the younger half-brother who is intellectually curious, a bit rowdy and uncertain, and who is exploring wht it means to be a "Stamper". This interesting rivalry and opposition between the brothers is used to explore a whole range of issues about what it means to be areal man and a real grown-up, and Kesey understands that in contemporary America the two hardly mean the same thing.
Yet at heart, this is a novel that lovingly but urgently explores the idea of family; what it should be, what it is, and what it should never let itself become. The Stampers beseiged are the family at their best, fighting, working, loving, and struggling together to keep it together and to define their own future and their very own version of the American dream; one they define and create, and expressly not the easy and popular one manufactured and sold politically and economically by big business and by the local townfolk themselves. This, then, is a novel that explores so many levels that it is undoubtedly will be continue to be read and interpreted and reread and reinterpreted again and again over the coming decades. May it well survive the journey, and may it well navigate its course, just as the Stampers do, through a deep understanding, love and appreciation for what it means to be an individual as well as a family member in contemporary American life, learning along the way. Ken Kesey never disappoints, but he is sometimes hard to keep up with as he chuckles his way ahead of us into the stormy rapids of life. Enjoy!
on January 26, 2004
I read Ken Kesey�s �Sometimes A Great Notion� at the urging of a friend, a debt I may never quite repay.
This is a truly epic novel, the story of�well what exactly? It�s the story of Leland Stamper, a Yale-educated, twenty-something intellectual grappling with near-suicidal depression in the wake of his mother�s suicide. It�s the story of Henry Stamper, Lee�s older half-brother, a hard-driving, stubburn, smart and narrow-minded bull of a man, determined and passionate, a fighter to his core and strong�oh so strong. It�s the story of Hank Stamper, their father a craggy old cood of a man, cantankerous, disagreeable, hillybilly and bully. It�s the story of the Stamper Family�s logging operation, which persist one automn despite a strike by the local logging union, various sabotage attempts directed by the leaders of said union, the unanimous opposition and anger of the local townsfolk, from Injun Jenny, the local whore, to the manager of the local movie theater. It is the story of Viv�ah Viv�a latter-day Helen of Troy, the lonely wife of Henry Stamper and object of Lee�s intended revenge upon the hated clan of his birth. Oh, and it�s the story of love, death, small town life, big business, labor and a few other incidental subjects here and there.
This was Kesey�s second novel, and while I�d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo�s Nest in college, nothing prepared me for the magnificence of this book. Hell, I hadn�t even heard of it.
First, the writing is brilliant. It�s a tough read at parts. Kesey has a way of jumping from narrative to inner monologue to spoken dialogue and then back to one or the other in no particular order, much as real life tends to unfold. Very hard to follow at times, but when you get the hang of it, it�s brilliant. Even when he meticulously intersperses scenes of a hunt, scenes of a romantic encounter, and the inner thoughts of a lone, lost and wounded hound. I nearly cried at that, which is saying something. Kesey masterfully creates unique, independent characters with these devices�with a larger impact that I�ll talk more about in a moment.
Second, the plot is just so darned good. Kesey interweaves all these stories�family dysfunction, sibling warfare, small town life�and does so without ever really taking his pedal off the gas. It�s not 500 pages of character development; the characters develop in the context of a truly compelling story. But the characters don�t develop at the cost of plot, or vice versa. Nothing seems forced, it�s incredibly honest, full of surprises. You�ll cry at parts. (I did.) Hell, it�s so good that, when I got to the end, I didn�t even close the cover. I just went back to the first page and reread the first chapter (made more sense the second time around.) Unlike several recent books that have left me greatly disappointed in their resolutions, this ending caught me by surprise and left me quite satisfied.
Third, he captures such monumental themes in such compelling ways. I mean, the narrative is full of grand twists and tunrs, always keeping you guessing. And in the end you�re convinced that the evolution of these characters, the discovery, is genuine and honest. And then you realize Kesey�s embedded timeless themes into the story, while you weren�t looking.
Fourth, and finally, a very specific observation tied to my personal interests as a writer and avid reader: He manages to create authentic characters with independent points of view. I truly felt that each character�s perspective was properly rationalized. It made sense that they felt this way, even when they were at complete conflict with one another. That reasonable people can view the world in different ways is real, and powerful, but often impossible to pull off in print. It�s much easier to make one side of the story the �right side� and resolve things that way. Kesey didn�t choose that road, and we�re all the better for it.
So, to summarize, I may never read a book this good again.
on April 24, 2000
The Great American Novel was written over 30 years ago, and it's name is "Sometimes a Great Notion."
One of those books that changes lives. I first read it at age 17, re-read it countless times during my 20s, and recently read it again at age 47.
It's frightening, and often disheartening, to go back to favorites as you grow older. Books that seemed dazzling to the teenage perspective seldom retain their charm to the older reader. Happily, I found Sometimes ... just as remarkable, just as thought-provoking, just as entertaining as I did 30 years ago.
The descriptions of the Oregon woods, the conflict of brother vs. brother and individualist vs. group are laser bright and beautiful. I envy you if this is the first time you'll read this book. It is Hank's bell.
on May 24, 2002
The lumbermen of Wakonda, Oregon are on strike, trying to pressure the Oregon lumber companies to pay more favorable prices. The strike becomes bitter when the Stamper family, bucking the strike and refusing to support the union, struggles to honor a contract with the Wakonda-Pacific Lumber Company at the expense of the town. Needing all the labor they can muster, the Stampers summon Leland Stanford Stamper, the bookish black sheep who left home twelve years before, vowing some day to return to ruin his half-brother, Hank Stamper. Leland returns home in the midst of the strike to wreak his ill-defined plot of revenge against his father and Hank, whom he blames for his mother's broken life and eventual suicide. Thus the Stamper family faces attack from the townsfolk and from within. This is the story Ken Kesey tells in his high-octane prose and skillfully weaved sentences. Kesey creates a very complex narrative that moves in and out of the stream-of consciousness among Hank and Leland Stamper and the third-person narrator, but the transitions are seamless, and the reader has very little difficulty following the narrative. Kesey creates some wonderful symbolism within the story. For example, the Stamper house, built at the turn of the century at the river's edge, rests upon a foundation supported by pilings of beams, cable, and steel girders that the Stamper family has added through the years. The foundation is under constant threat of being washed away whenever the river rises, and Hank Stamper, like his father before him, finds himself driven almost nightly to check the foundation, to tie more cable and add more wood. Kesey's sentences are vivid and establish a cadence to match the mood of each chapter. Consider this description of the web of foundation supports under the Stamper house: "White timbers less than a year old cross ancient worm-rutted pilings. Bright silvery nailheads blink alongside oldtime squarehaed spikes rusted blind." The reader finds that the sentences glide past, pulling the reader into the story. Kesey creates several memorable characters, most notably Hank Stamper, who despite his masculinity and hard-nosed ways, is cabable of guilt and doubt and at times, tenderness. An excellent read.
on October 10, 2000
I found myself reading the last fifty or so pages very slowly. I did not want this book to end. (The first hundred pages or so went by slowly because I did not understand the structure). In between the pages flew by.
There are a few must read American novels. Catcher in the Rye, Angle of Repose, Grapes of Wrath, all come to mind. This one, unfortunately, does not. It should.
The structure of the book (switching points of view) and plot and the development of the characters was amazing.
Buy this book. Stick with it and you will love it.
I can't wait to read it again.
on November 8, 2005
I have never written a comment on this or any other post before, but I can't resist saying something about this book. That being said, I can't find the words to express how amazing "Sometimes a Great Notion" is. It's dense, it takes dedication but I've just finished it for the second time and I have to say, it is worth every minute. The characters are so real and so fully drawn, that the reader (this reader anyway) feels what they feel, sees what they see, smells what they smell. The family politics are eerily familiar and fascinating. Someone who commented on the book earlier in this post said that it was, in his humble opinion, one of the best works of literature of the 20th Century. I can't agree more. Do yourself a favor and read this book!
on February 12, 2004
Although Cuckoo's Nest is a great novel, Sometimes a Great Notion is even more brilliant, even more complex, and even more rewarding. The unique style of intertwined first-person narratives is executed perfectly and is proof of Kesey's inventiveness as a writer and his ability to expand the possibilities of what a novel can achieve. The book is not at all didactic, but you can't help but reflect on your own life when reading it. Also, few writers could take what would seem to be a simple, rather traditional storyline and tell the story in such an imaginative, unorthodox way. This novel was definitely ahead of its time and hopefully is beginning to attain the overdue attention that has eluded it. Kesey was one of the greats.
on November 9, 2001
I first read this in college some 27 years ago. I am in a book club and, with a vague memory that this was a book worthy of sharing, selected it as my choice for the club last month.
Having just finished my 2nd reading, it is most reassuring to me that I had good taste even as a 20 year old!
This is definetly one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. Kesey's writing is downright scary, it is so good.
For what it's worth, our 8 member book club ranked this book in the top 3, out of well over 100 titles read so far, all ostensibly "good books".
Just read it. Take your time. Savor the cinematic scope of his descriptions of places and people. Enjoy the ebb and flow of the rhythms and pace of events as they unfold from multiple points of view. Laugh out loud at the old time wisdom of Henry Stamper, the patriarch of the family.
Yes, the book is a bit more challenging than most at times, but there are large sections that are as easy to swallow as a shot of I.W. Harper. Reward yourself if you've got the slightest interest in reinvigorating some of those numb and/or long dormant brain cells. It will bring your heart along for the ride.
JUST READ IT!