One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Ken Kesey


I have no amusing stories today.  My sinuses feel as if they will explode out of my head at any moment.

Last week, I randomly picked up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which I had picked out from the library.  Because a force of nature (also known as Hurricane Five Year Old) absconded with my Top Ten book, I had to check with Dave to make sure it was in Top Ten.  A secret though;  I would have been reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest even if it hadn’t been in there.  I picked up the book on Saturday.  I was hooked.

I’m not sure what about this book drew me in right from the beginning.  Unlike some other “classic” works of literature, you didn’t have to tease the story out of the layers of language and author’s quirks (Les Miserables anyone?). 

The setting for this story is a mental ward.  Judging from cultural references within the book, I’d place the time frame in the very late 40s to mid 50s.  (1940s-1950s).  The narrator is an old Native American, named Bromden.  Bromden has spent years pretending to be deaf and dumb, it began as an assumption on someone’s part and he didn’t correct them…partly because he wants to see and hear everything happening.

I think one of the paragraphs in the first chapter is part of what hooks you so easily to this story.  It’s first person narration with Bromden speaking.

“(A bluetick hound bays out there in the fog, running scared and lost because he can’t see.  No tracks on the ground but the ones he’s making, and he sniffs in every direction with his cold red-rubber nose and picks up no scent but his own fear, fear burning down into him like steam.)  It’s gonna burn me just that way, finally telling about all this, about the hospital and her, and the guys–and about McMurphy.  I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please.  It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it.  But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

I think that paragraph sets up the tension of the rest of the book so well.

The story centers around a new patient, named McMurphy, a loud, brash, gambling man.  He comes into the ward, either having acted crazy or was crazy to get out of working on a prison farm.  Nurse Ratchet, the head nurse, has created an atmosphere of complete order and submission on the part of the patients.  She does this with cultivation of fear.  Bromden makes a perfect narrator, as he has been there for years and can graph for us in detail how she went about doing it.  Of course, McMurphy and Nurse Ratchet clash.  That’s one of the points of the whole story.  They begin a battle.  Wits, fear, submission, lack of submission all play a part in this battle.  And the tension mounts as you wait to see who will be the winner.

Another theme of the book is how much of our behavior is rooted in what others expect from us.  If they expect us to be deaf and dumb, are we?  If we are told we are insane, are we going to act insane?  If we are expected to save someone, will we? 

It’s also an interesting contrast between the treatment used at that time in mental hospitals (electroshock therapy, medication and lobotomies) and the “treatment” McMurphy brings into the ward.

I really, really want you to read this, so I am not going to say anymore, as I risk ruining the ending if I do.

Go.  Read it.  Go.  Now.


John Cheever’s Bullet Park

I’ve always enjoyed John Cheever’s interesting take on suburbia, though I am primarily familiar with Cheever the short story writer as opposed to Cheever the novelist. After all, if you haven’t taken a look at Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” then you really need to do so (though you’ve probably been living under a rock if you haven’t run across it before). As such, I was interested to see what Cheever’s Bullet Park was all about.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for A. M. Homes.)

I’m not entirely sure how this one shakes out on the suburban front. Bullet Park, the place as opposed to the title itself, definitely fits the concept of flawed suburbia:

The lights of Powder Hill twinkled, its chimneys smoked and a pink plush toilet-seat cover flew from a clothesline. Seen at an improbably distance by some zealous and vengeful adolescent, ranging over the golf links, the piece of plush would seem to be the imprimatur, the guerdon, the accolade and banner of Powder Hill behind which marched, in tight English shoes, the legions of wife-swapping, Jew-baiting, booze-fighting spiritual bankrupts. Oh damn them all, thought the adolescent. Damn the bright lights by which no one reads, damn the continuous music which no one hears, damn the grand pianos that no one can play, damn the white houses mortgaged up to their rain gutters, damn them for plundering the oceans for fish to feed the mink whose skins they wear and damn their shelved on which there rests a single book–a copy of the telephone directory, bound in pink brocade.

In this setting, we have an unstably complacent suburban man:

Nailles’s house (white) was one of those rectilinear Dutch Colonials with a pair of columns at the door and an interior layout so seldom varied that one could, standing in the hallway with its curved staircase, correctly guess the disposition of every stick of furniture and almost every utility from the double bed in the northeast master’s room through the bar in the pantry to the washing machine in the laundry basement. Nailles was met in the hall by an old red setter names Tessie whom he’d trained and hunted with for twelve years. Tessie was getting deaf and now, whenever the screen door slammed, she would mistake this for the report of a gun and trot out onto the lawn, ready to retrieve a bird or a rabbit. Tessie’s muzzle, her pubic hair and her footpads had turned white and it was difficult for her to climb stairs. In the evening, when he went to bed, Nailles would give her a boost. Sometimes she cried out in pain…He decided that should a time come when she would have to be killed he would take her out behind the rose garden and shoot her himself…Nailles still hunted with her in the autumn.

We also have an insane anti-suburban man who decides to kill the unstably complacent suburban man’s son:

We marched through the Venezia to the Colosseum. We walked proudly, men, women and children, in spite of the shuffling sound. This grief which, in my case, we accidentally shared reminded me of how little else there was that we had in common. I felt the strongest love for these strangers for the space of three city blocks. There was a memorial service in the Colosseum–nothing as moving as the procession but when I went back to the hotel I felt well. We flew back to New York soon afterwards and it was sitting on a beach that following summer (I had already seen the picture in the dental journal) that I decided, on the strength of a kite string, that my crazy old mother’s plan to crucify a man was sound and that I would settle in Bullet Park and murder Nailles. Sometime later I changed my victim to Tony.

Really, that’s the book in a nutshell. Things proceed from there.

I don’t want to talk a whole lot more about details, or give a whole lot more analysis, because I worry about spoiling the book for people. The details are pretty significant, and the book isn’t that long. Frankly, I may have said too much already. Of course, I believe Bullet Park came out in 1967. It’s probably long enough that I don’t have to worry about spoilers.

Now, the summary on the back of my copy of Bullet Park says that the boy is saved but the American dream dies. However, Bullet Park seems just as critical of Hammer, the anti-suburban man, as Nailles, the suburban man. I’m not quite sure what to take away from that. Honestly, I’m left puzzled enough that I don’t have a whole lot articulate to say.

Of course…I never expected Cheever to be simple. You probably shouldn’t either.

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur-Legends of King Arthur

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur isn’t exactly in the Top Ten. However, James Salter listed “The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table”.

The Top Ten has this to say about it “These are the stories that gave us Camelot, the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail. Versions abound but the best place to start is with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur”. So that’s what I did.

Sir Malory lived during the 1400s. The book I read said the following about him in introduction:
“Sir Thomas Malory led a life of adventure, much of it seemingly discreditable to his chivalrous ideals. He inherited an estate at Newbold Revell in 1433 and, three years later, served at the siege of Calais with a train consisting of a single lancer and two archers. In 1445 he became a Member of Parliament for Warwickshire, yet in 1450 not only tried to ambush and murder the Duke of Bucking ham, but broke into Coombe Abbey, where he robbed and insulted the abbot. He was also charged with forcing one Henry Smyth’s wife, stealing cattle on a large scale, and highway robbery. For these misdemeanours he served eight periods of imprisonment and twice escaped–in July, 1451, swimming the moat of Coleshill prison; in October, 1454, making an armed breakout from Colchester Castle. In 1462 he fought for King Edward IV against the Scots and French, but presently went over to the Lancastrian rebels. In 1468 the King excluded him from a general pardon, whereupon he appears to have been imprisoned at Newgate until his death three years later”. And all I could think of “Wow. What a badass”. He wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while in Newgate. He didn’t make up the tales, but used several sources from France and England.

I’ve never read much of the original myths surrounding King Arthur.
Some things I noticed:
Merlin almost seems a comical figure in Malory’s writing. He pops up in tales in the beginning of Arthur’s life. He prophesies everything that is to happen. Then Arthur ignores him, and the stuff happens. Finally, Merlin allows himself to be shut up in a cave by Nynaeve. The Lady of Avalon gives Excalibur (which is not the sword in the stone, but the 2nd magical sword for Arthur) and then quickly gets killed off.

It made me wonder if Malory downplayed the magic part of Arthur and his reign due to its “unchristian” nature, or if the magic part has been “upplayed” in the centuries since for a variety of reasons (definitely makes a more interesting tale to think of Merlin as being so much more).

Also, Arthur’s relationship with Morgawse seems…odd. In one tale she’s plotting to kill him and take over Camelot. Then a few tales later, she’s happily dining with him to celebrate her son Gareth’s knighthood and marriage.

The woods in England during Arthur’s time must have been strange and busy places. Knights looking for adventure are always running into dwarves and weeping ladies. Dead and alive knights. Knights needing killing. Knights needing rescuing. The way the woods sound in these tales is like, “I have to go into the woods to take a piss. Oh wait, in the five feet I entered in, I encountered three dwarves, one noble woman in need and two weird knights challenging me”.

I highly recommend if you read Malory’s tales, to find the translation done by Keith Baines. He’s taken it from “…many grete strokes, and for the moste parte every stroke Accolon gaff wounded him full sore. And always King Arthur loste so much blood that hit was marvayle he stode upon his feete, but he was so full of knighthode that he endured the payne. And his swerde braste at the cross and felle on the grasse among the bloode, and when he saw that he was in grete feare to dye” to English easier for your eye and brain to go across, since it’s a bit more modern.

Also, while details are not gone into in many cases, there is a LOT OF SEX happening in Malory’s tales. Launcelot and Guinevere spent many hours together as lovers do, both during the day _and_ at night *wink wink nudge nudge*. Also ladies everywhere are always falling down to offer “comforts in all ways” to the knights that end up staying at their castles for the night (the castle is usually the 10th or 11th step into the forest, just a hour away from the other castle).

I read most of the tales of Arthur in Baines’ translation (or modern rendering? I don’t know what to call it for sure, since it was already in English), and will continue to read.

However, it was Malory’s tales and the concept of chivalry and all of the events Malory has occurring that helped inspire Don Quixote, so I might move onto that next to bring you my thoughts next time on Don Quixote and his windmills!

Exley’s A Fan’s Notes

There are a great number of books out there that are about (at least in part) writers struggling with writing and figuring out how to live their lives. I think of books like Malamud’s The Tenants, Bukowski’s Post Office, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or virtually anything by Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller. The list goes on and on. I suppose it’s no surprise, being that struggling to write and figure out how to live are what writers know most intimately.

Strangely though, as many of these as have been brought to my attention, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes was completely new to me. I’d never heard of it before picking it from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books for a look.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for George Pelacanos.)

The funny thing is that I started hearing about this book after I decided to read it. All of a sudden, people around me were talking about A Fan’s Notes without any knowledge that I intended to read it. I hadn’t prompted the discussion; it was just happening. Maybe I’d just never noticed before, but it seemed to only come up around me after I picked up my copy.

A Fan’s Notes is a pretty intimate kind of book. Presented as a fictional memoir, a character named for the author recounts the series of failures that is his life. Raised in the shadow of his father’s local-level sports fame, the character Exley grows with a desperate need for fame. However, the longer the fame he seeks eludes him, the more he vicariously fulfills that fame need through watching a famous football player he briefly met in college. In a strange way, he feels a connection with this player:

“What is this thing with you and Gifford–or whatever his name is?” she asked.

The question took me unawares, and I did not answer her for a long time. I had never before tried to articulate what the thing was, and I was fairly sure that whatever I said would come out badly and be taken wrong. But I thought I would say something. The heavy hum of the wheels was beneath us, the darkness of the cab enshrouded us, the atmosphere seemed conducive to talk. I told her about my first year in New York, how I had this awful dream of fame, but that, unlike Gifford–who had possessed the legs and the hands and the agility, the tools of his art–I had come to New York with none of the tools of mine, writing. I told her how I tried to content myself with reverie, envisioning myself emblazoned across the back of dust jackets. I told her how I had gone each lonely Sunday to the Polo Grounds where Gifford, when I heard the city cheer him, came after a time to represent to me the possible, had sustained for me the illusion I could escape the bleak anonymity of life.

Romantic failures, job failures, mental and alcoholic breakdowns resulting in multiple commitments to mental hospitals as well as shock treatment, the book moves back and forth across his life. For a book centering on a character who struggles even trying to find a way to live his life, A Fan’s Notes is remarkably sharp (as well as cutting) and focused in its insight. At one point, the character Exley starts a fight where he is beaten badly before running off and collapsing:

In a moment, I would fall asleep. But before I did, all the dread and the dismay and the foreboding I had been experiencing disappeared, were abruptly gone, and I felt quiet. They disappeared because, as I say, I understood the last and most important reason why I fought. The knowledge caused me to weep very quietly, numbly, caused me to weep because in my heart I knew I had always understood this last and most distressing reason, which rendered the grief I had caused myself and others all for naught. I fought because I understood, and could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny–unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd–to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.

Given that I mentioned above how many books I’ve seen explore this theme, you might think that I found A Fan’s Notes to just be a revisit of old ground. This is not actually the case. The theme may be familiar, but Exley’s examination of it is all his own. It is ruthless and impressively crystalized. There are even quite a few moments of startling beauty inside. It may not be one of my favorite books of all time, but it is certainly a damn good one.