sometimes a great notion

i’ve committed myself to writing a post about the 50 best novels published in the last 50 years…  so i’m scrambling to read everything that’s a contender.  luckily (for this purpose), i spend a lot of time in planes and airports.  i’m also trying to do a better job writing about what i’ve been reading.  so here goes…

better known for his first novel, “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest,” ken kesey’s “sometimes a great notion” (1964) is his masterpiece.   set in a logging town in oregon, it’s the story of the stamper family – father henry, first son hank, hank’s wife viv and second son (with a different wife) leland.  the stampers and their extended family are at odds with the rest of the community because they refuse to honor a strike that has destroyed the economy of the town. crusty patriarch henry is laid up with an injury and hunky hank is running the family logging business when leland, who’s been gone 12 years, comes home from yale seeking revenge.

the greek tragedy of a plot is expansive and non-linear.   minor characters are fleshed-out to create atmospere, but more importantly as devices to give the reader insights into the complexities of the personalities of the stampers.  on top of all that,  kesey uses multiple first person narrators —  at times switching perspective from one paragraph to the next, or even line by line.  i know it sounds like a mess, but it’s a device that allows kesey to effectively reveal how differently each of the characters interprets the events that form the narrative and to make the point that no one ever really understands what motivates anyone else.

when i finished the book, i turned back to the first page and read big chunks of the novel again.  “sometimes a great notion” is extraordinary.  read it.

in 2006 the new york times published a list of 25 novels compiled from the responses of famous writers and “literary sages” who’d  been asked the question  “what is the single best work of american fiction published in the last 25 years?”  don delillo’s “underworld” (1997) was runner-up, with 11 of the 125 votes; toni morrison’s “beloved” (1987) got 15.  though i’m no fan of “beloved,” my expectations for “underworld” were high.

the prologue is a great piece of writing describing the 1951 dodgers-giants game in which bobby thomson hit a home run to win the pennant for the new york giants.  the narrative is moody and multifaceted and we’re treated to juicy historic characters like frank sinatra, jackie gleason and j. edgar hoover.    it’s a fantastic read and i’m not even slightly interested in the sport.    the winning home run is evidently one of the most famous events in baseball history.  delillo uses the ball thompson  hit into the left field bleachers, along with the theme of human waste, as the threads that very loosely stitch this novel together.

like “sometimes a great notion,” this novel is not chronological and is narrated from various perspectives.   but this book is far wider-ranging and far more ambitious — an attempt to describe the psychological condition of cold war america.  unfortunately, in delillo’s hands, the subject is too big, even for an eight hundred page book.   it got away from him and his editor failed to pull it back together.  i’ve heard this called a “demanding” read.  i’d say grueling.  “the sound and the fury” is demanding. this is just sloppy.  sure, there is some nice writing — a few beautifully drawn scenes and a couple of fairly interesting character sketches.  but none of the characters, particularly the nominally central character, a waste management consultant, are actually well-developed.  an unforgivable flaw, i think, in a book of this scale.

so how did this book end up number two on that 2006 list?    a new york-centric literary establishment mistaking ambition for quality.   my tip:  read only the prologue; spend the time you’ve conserved enjoying kesey’s “sometimes a great notion.”

if you have suggestions of books i should be considering for my list, please let me know.