I received Sometimes a Great Notion on Christmas of 1999. I was well aware of Ken Kesey due to his affiliation with the Grateful Dead, and I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at least twice by this point. Two of my oldest friends had always mentioned Sometimes a Great Notion, and they both named it as their favorite novel, so I had always meant to read it, but I did not get to it until early 2000.
I gave it a go in February of 2000, and chucked it after only 30 or so pages. I had no idea what was going on, and was confused by the narration. Two weeks later, I gave it another try. This time, I made it to about 100 pages and then threw it across the room in frustration. I really had no idea what was happening in the book.
I mentioned this most recent failed attempt to a co-worker, who excitedly said, “Oh, Sometimes a Great Notion, that’s my favorite book, ever! How could you give up? It is so brilliant.”
“I just don’t know what is happening, not to mention who is telling the damned story.”
“Oh! I see”, he replied. “You know the narrator keeps changing, right?”
Fuck! Seriously? That would have helped me to know this when I first picked it up.
You see, I read a lot, but up to that point, I had never read anything challenging. I had read every Stephen King book at least twice, and I had read the aforementioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a host of others, but nothing terribly complex.
I had no idea that such a style of writing existed. Obviously, I had never read Faulkner, and I do not think I had even read any of John Steinbeck’s longer novels yet, either.
So, now that I knew that I was simply a newbie and not merely a moron, I gave it one last try. And then it also became my favorite book of all time. To this day, I have read this magnum opus three times, and I may pick it up again soon just for funsies. Once I figured it out, I could follow along the story line much better, and follow the narrator, as well.
Also, I was reading this book for the first time when my son was born, so it will always have that wonderful association attached to it.
The story itself tells the tragic tale of the Stamper family and their logging business in the fictional Oregon town of Wakonda. When the local union goes on strike, the Stamper family logging business continues to work by employing only members of the family. When they are short-handed, they bring in the lost sheep, the Stamper patriarch’s youngest son, who left the family at age 12 with his mother and eventually received an East Coast education—about as far removed from the Oregon logging industry as a person can get. After his return to the fold, many family struggles and tragedies unfold as the business struggles to meet a deadline.
The Stamper family motto comes from the old patriarch, Henry Stamper, who once scrawled the words “Never give an inch” onto a birthday gift given to the younger Hank Stamper. This theme permeates throughout the novel in how the Stampers came to Oregon, stayed on their land alongside the Wakonda River, and battled the townspeople, the unions, the river, and each other.
This synopsis, of course, does not do the novel justice at all, and I do not feel that I have spoiled anything for anyone who has not read the book. It is a brilliantly told story, but Kesey’s style of telling it is what is remarkable.
It is often compared to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom in style and content, and it also bears a similar resemblance to The Sound and Fury. The narrator in Sometimes a Great Notion changes abruptly and without warning, sometimes in mid-sentence. I have heard people say that they always do better reading it the second time around, and I agree with that. Once you know the characters, it is much easier to follow.
Kesey tends to wander off course at times throughout the novel, but I believe that is due to his being influenced by the Beat writers who came before him. Kesey was friends with Neal Cassady, who was the hero Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Kesey later befriended his heroes Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg, and mimicked a similar style of writing in Sometimes a Great Notion.
The story is infused with rich descriptions of the land, as well as the characters. The vicious Wakonda River, the harsh and wet climate, and the tough-as-nails people who live and work in the harsh region are portrayed perfectly.
If I could write with half the talent that Kesey has for descriptive scenery, I would feel accomplished. His character developments are also worthy of envy. By the time a reader reaches the halfway point in the book, they know the characters well enough to develop a deep empathy for them.
The title comes from an old Leadbelly song, “Goodnight Irene.”
Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I takes a great notion
I’m gonna jump into the river and drown
Sadly, the movie adaptation from 1969, directed and starring Paul Newman, was a pale depiction of such a rich and prolific novel, even if it received two Oscar nominations. I have a dream to write a screenplay and see the novel done justice on the big screen.
If you have never read Sometimes a Great Notion, I heartily recommend it. It is such a beautifully written story that I personally want to re-read again.
If you have read it, tell me what you thought of the book. I would love to hear your take on my all-time favorite novel. Also, please share your all-time favorite novel, if you would like.