For my money, "Sometimes a Great Notion" is The Great American Novel, against which, "Huckleberry Finn," often given that title, can’t hold a candle and seems a mere twaddling piece of kiddie lit. Twain may have the greater reputation as a writer, but in my mind Kesey the writer is the greater. While Twain foregrounds the relation of a black man and a white boy to highlight both the shame of slavery and the promise of emancipation and its near-fulfillment in the Civil Rights movement, Kesey eschews portraying historical American race relations directly and only tips his cap to it by having the Stampers use the word, "nigger," against any- and every-one, be they black, red, or white, even kin. Kesey makes individualism the essence of his novel and, by extension, the essence of Americanism, certainly an arguable position.

The story is about an immigrant family, a family which has anxiously and continually picked up and moved on, westward of course, echoing the ever-westward movement that characterized the early part of our history, until they are stopped by the sea and settle in Oregon’s timber country, focusing on the latest two generations of that family and their outward relationship to the neighboring townspeople and to the local economy, as well as to their intra-familial conflicts and commitment, yearning and frustration, allegiance and betrayals, deception and fidelity, jealousy and devotion.

The writing rivals Faulkner in its daring, depth, and power but remains sharp and clear even in its experimental structure. In one paragraph, a character may be revealed by an omniscient narrator, while in the immediately following paragraph the character, himself, continues the story in the first person, interior monologues punctuating straightforward narrative. A paragraph may have three or four of the several, continuous, separate, and subordinate narratives progress with a sentence or two each. Another paragraph may have all of the above devices; however, once you get a feel for what is happening and learn who the characters are (fairly quickly and easily, I might add; this is not Tolstoy), it remains perfectly and surprisingly clear. All the while, a straightforward narrative unfolds, even though not temporally sequential at all times. My only quibble would be that near the end I found the extreme commingling of external action with interior experience (often in the same sentence!) difficult to parse carefully though not hard to follow in essence. Nevertheless, this device pushes the action along powerfully; and perhaps that was Kesey’s intention, the confusion actually conveying the nature of the conflict being depicted.

talltimt's rating:
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