History: This book was published in 1964. While One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) was arguably the more famous of the two novels, many critics consider Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey's magnum opus.
The novel uses the technique of having multiple characters speak sequentially in the first person, with no announcement that the first-person speaker has changed. A first reading can be confusing, but subsequent readings reveal that Kesey always provides a clue, quickly referring to the previously-presumed first character in the third person. This technique allows Kesey to weave an intricate braid of characters who reveal their motives in depth to the reader, but do not communicate well with each other.
Kesey took the title from the song “Goodnight, Irene”, popularized by Leadbelly:
Sometimes I lives in the country
Sometimes I lives in town
Sometimes I haves a great notion
To jump into the river an’ drown
Plot: The story centers on the Stamper family, a hard-headed logging clan in the fictional town of Wakonda, Oregon. The union loggers in the town of Wakonda go on strike in demand of the same pay for shorter hours in response to the decreasing need for labor due to the introduction of the chainsaw. The Stamper family, however, owns and operates a company without unions and decides to not only continue work, but to supply the regionally owned mill with all the lumber the laborers would have supplied had the strike not occurred.
This decision, and the surrounding details of the decision, are deeply explored in this multilayered historical background and relationship study—especially in its examination of the following characters: Henry Stamper, the old and half-crazed patriarch whose motto "Never Give A Inch!" has defined the nature of the family and its dynamic with the town; Hank, the oldest son of Henry whose strong will and personality make him a leader but his subtle insecurities and desires threaten the stability of his family; Leland, the younger son of Henry and half brother of Hank, whose constant weaknesses and the nature of his intellect led him away from the family to the East Coast, but whose eccentric behavior and desire for revenge against Hank lead him back to Oregon; and Viv, whose love for her husband Hank fades quickly when she begins to realize her true place in the Stamper household.
The family house itself manifests the physical stubbornness of the Stamper family; as the nearby river widens slowly and causes erosion, all the other houses on the river have either been consumed or wrecked by the waters or moved away from the current, except the Stamper house, which stands on a precarious peninsula struggling to maintain every inch of land with the help of an arsenal of boards, sand bags, cables, and other miscellaneous items brandished by Henry Stamper in his fight against the encroaching river.
Review: Often called the "quintessential Oregon novel," Sometimes a Great Notion bears remarkable similarity to our fabled Beaver State winters: seemingly sprawling and unending at first, characterized by incessant rain, somewhat disorienting until you become acclimated, yet ultimately compelling, fecund, and, dare I say, necessary. Ken Kesey is perhaps Oregon's most famous adopted son, known best, of course, for his debut novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the time he spent with the Merry Pranksters. Not only is Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey's masterwork (Bartleby : Moby-Dick :: Cuckoo's Nest : Notion), it very well may encapsulate the American ethic and landscape as well as any other novel of its era.
Concerned with the ongoing timber strike in the fictional coastal range town of Wakonda, Sometimes a Great Notion revolves around the very proud and unyielding Stamper family, who decide to continue logging despite the acrimony and pleading of their neighbors. Literally teeming with symbolic imagery, the novel engenders some conflicted loyalties in the reader, as even the most reprehensible behavior on the part of some of the characters manages to elicit our sympathies. Kesey's unique prose structure, rich in style and nuance, stands in stark contrast to the inability of most of the characters to openly express themselves, their desires, and their feelings. One could easily make the case that this book is mainly about the labor struggle or encroaching modernity or the timber industry or Oregon itself; but, at its roots, it seems to be about the underlying and driving motivations that characterize the complexity of interpersonal relationships. While propelled by some of the basest of human emotions — hubris, stubbornness, revenge, jealousy, envy — Sometimes a Great Notion is also marked by some of the noblest: love, loyalty, camaraderie, and kindness.
This is quite the rewarding work, and lovers of all types of fiction will undoubtedly find many things remarkable about this epic novel. Kesey's masterpiece deserves its place amidst the canon of great American novels, yet is rarely mentioned in the same breath as some of the more widely accepted classics.
Opening Line: “Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range… come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge in the Wakonda Auga River…”
Closing Line: “Hee! Jenny says triumphantly, lifting the mud hemmed garment on over her head.”
Quotes: “The past is funny ... it never seems to let things lie, finished. It never seems to stay in place as it should.”
“The raw materials of reality without the glue of time are materials adrift and reality is as meaningless as the balsa parts of a model airplane scattered to the wind.”
Rating: I could not get it. Did not finish.