A Great Notion

Ken Kesey
Tom Stechschulte,

(Recorded Books)
< Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I get a great notion
To jump into the river an' drown.
--- "Goodnight, Irene"
I went through all twenty-six discs of Sometimes a Great Notion, narrated by Tom Stechschulte. He's good.

No, he's very very good.

He's cool Hank Stamper, a man who lost two fingers in a logging accident (his new wife Vivian didn't find out until she takes off his gloves).

He's also the crabby old reprobate Henry Stamper, and the eastern college graduate Leland (Stanford) Stamper, and Vivian, too. Stechschulte becomes these characters --- and many others --- because he's good, and the writing is good, good enough to let one into the story so the story becomes you.

I finally went to the library, got out an old 1965 edition of the book, started reading through the parts that I had liked listening to. Notion is a ravishingly good book, and this disc version does it justice.

The obit writers (Kesey died in 2003) said things like

    The story involves an Oregon family of loggers who cut and procure trees for a local mill in opposition to striking, unionized workers...

Well, yes, but that's like saying that The Old Man and the Sea is a how-to-do-it guide on fishing in the tropics. Notion is more than a Northwest strike tale: it's an epic, family members locked in classic family battles, with each other or with the gods (or both), like something out of Ovid or the Mahabarata or Æschylus.

Brother (or half-brother) sleeping with mother, another brother (step-son) vowing to avenge this, complete with tricks, deceit, attempted murder, suicide ... and enough hate to take it all through to another generation. It's Lake Woebegone with nuts; it's Our Town acted out, with verve and passion (and blue language) on the Oregon Pacific coast in the bizarre house that Henry built on the river, a Sisyphean structure than never seems to get finished; when Henry finally dies, Hank takes over the job.

This epic tale goes on, in the hills, at the ocean, through the forests, on the river, or in the town of Wakonda, at the Wakonda bar under the eyes of watchful Teddy, who may be the Pacific Northwest version of a Greek chorus, playing out his role there in the Snag ... since everyone sooner or later comes through his saloon: Hank, Henry, Leland; Draeger, the smooth-talking union organizer; Evenwrite the striker's agent; the drunks, the movie-theatre owner (who tries to kill himself); and the local bully, Big Newton:

    Teddy lowered his lashes and gazed at the weenie-fingered, rusty-knuckled paw resting on the richly grained surface of the bar. Beside this monstrosity his own curled hand --- eternally bluish from so many hours in the wash-water cleaning glasses, the flesh appearing to approach transparency the way meat does after pickling --- looked even bluer and smaller than usual.

§   §   §

Kesey is now best remembered for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, a book that began to redefine "the mad" (and the caretakers of the mad). Kesey was also famous for crossing the United States in a mad, Day-Glo bus, zonked on acid, a play on wheels as scripted by Tom Wolfe.

But he was much more than that ... and the pity is that American literature lost him to acid and foolishness at such a tender age. He looked to be a tough logger but it is said that he was compellingly sweet and he wrote like a dream. His problem was not his life nor his LSD nor getting busted for pot (and spending time in jail) but his attempt to open the soul of America. He lost.

Sometimes a Great Notion was completed before he was thirty years old. It is so all-comprehending, all-embracing and at the same time all-bewitching that I found myself obsessed, in the way that books --- and their narrative --- can get inside you and obsess you. For a time there, I was a logger in the Pacific Northwest or an angry neo-suicidal college student or a suave union organizer or a drunken tough ... or even a wise barkeep. We have here all you could ever want to know about felling trees, bear hunting, the life and language of a small-town bar, juvenile delinquents in small-town America, music of the 50s and 60s, shamans, Indians, evangelists, Captain Marvel, small-town justice, union organizing, revenge, old age, dying, death.

What Kesey does is make you love all his characters, even the disgraceful ones, forever disgracing themselves (and us): lovely Vivian being seduced by Leland (while she is married to his half-brother Hank); old man Henry Stamper so rustic and profane and salty that his own son Leland wonders where he can have come from. And along the way, getting immersed in small town life; bears in the woods; hounds chasing bears in the woods; the tide coming in; the tide going out.

The only sour note in the book --- at least in my book --- comes when Kesey decides to kill off Hank's cousin, Joby. I scarcely thought I would end up loving a Bible-toting evangelist logger --- but he's the real thing. The worst of it all is the way that Kesey chooses to do him in. It's a scandal: slow death by drowning. A log has trapped his legs at the water's edge; the river is rising slowly; he cannot escape; Hank stays nearby, ducks under water to feed him air (by mouth!) as long as he can. There is no help this far outside of town, the river is not going down, the sun is, though, and we are dreading the inevitable. We want to ring up Kesey, tell him, "Don't let it happen!"

Hank and Joby laugh about things that happened to them so long ago, skating on the frozen pond (they call it being "pond-monkeys,") stories of girlfriends, wives, children, high school evenings out, Joby's pledge to never drink coffee ever again (his fundamentalist minister told him it was sinful). They joke and carry on until they can joke no longer: "Even after his little scarred face had been submerged Hank could still hear sputtering giggles, and when he ducked his face under still feel that goofy half-wit grin against Joe's lips. The situation seemed so bizarre to them both that for a time they felt silly and foolish and made the job of transferring the air more difficult and dangerous with their laughing, both realizing it, but unable to stop."

    This funny thing swimming up out of the dark. Like something'd been there all along and just waiting for it to get dark enough. Now, in tight silence beneath the water, Joe feels it trying to fit into the skin of him, trying to take over the shell of him.

"He doesn't like it." And we don't either. We figure Kesey had no right to kill off the one character we had come to know and to love out of this whole bunch of hard-assed tough-talking Oregon loggers. Joey's demise comes at the end of disk 21. You may ... like me ... not want to go on to disk 22. Not for a few days, anyway. Just to try to let it pass.

--- Richard Saturday
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