Friday, July 20, 2007

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Warning: this review contains some mild spoilers.

I am by no means a fast reader, but even so this book took me much longer to read than it should have. I don't know exactly why this was the case. It wasn't like I was slogging through it. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Most people know the basic story of this book because they have seen the film, which is a pretty good adaptation. The basic story is that a ne'er-do-well convict gets himself admitted to a psychiatric hospital, seemingly to get out of work duty. McMurphy is obviously different than the rest of the men on the floor, who are split in to two groups: the acutes and the chronics. The acutes are men that the hospital is trying to rehabilitate. They are generally functional human beings with a few "defects". The chronics are those that will no doubt live out the rest of their days on the ward. They are considered beyond help. What makes the book especially interesting -- and sets it apart from the movie -- is that the story is told from the perspective of one of the chronics, Chief Bromden, a Native American whose hulking size belies his diminutive personality. At the beginning of the book Bromden tells the reader:
"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! 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."
This sets the story up quite nicely, for what follows is truly a mixture of reality and the slightly-skewed reality that Bromden sees around him, as he recounts the battle that ensues between McMurphy and the Big Nurse, Ms. Ratched.

It has been a while since I have seen the movie, but what I remember of it syncs up rather well with the book. I don't think anyone other than Nicholson could have played Randle Patrick McMurphy the right way. The character was perfect for him. However, the humor was already there in the character. The macho posturing, the quick wit, and the overall demeanor of McMurphy were carefully-crafted creations of Kesey (how's that for alliteration). Other than the Nicholson-McMurphy connection, the film was not instrumental in the mental pictures that I created while reading the book. Kesey writes well and his sparse, yet somehow still vivid, descriptions trumped the film in my mind's eye. One night as Bromden is telling McMurphy about his dad, he says:
"And the last I see him he's blind in the cedars from drinking and every time I see him put the bottle to his mouth he don't suck out of it, it sucks out of him until he's shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs don't know him, and we had to cart him out of the cedars, in a pickup, to a place in Portland, to die."
While on a trip outside of the hospital, Bromden describes the landscape around him: "Out along the dim six-o'clock street, I saw leafless trees standing, striking the sidewalk there like wooden lightning, concrete split apart where they hit, all in a fenced-in ring."

The writing is excellent, and the characters are full of life. There is good reason that this book is considered a classic.


Check out Christopher's review of this book.


Carlton said...

Halfway there, but about a month late. Oh well.

Christopher said...

I love this book.