This is a swamp bear of a book. Wrestling its 700+ pages is like an endurance race that you lose at your peril. Ken Kesey has an identity that mostly doesn’t involve this book. He’s a Merry Prankster, an LSD aficionado; the author of the rebel book ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which became a film starring Jack Nicholson; a high beatnik, then a high hippie. This book proves conclusively that he was also a very good writer, although you might argue with his political slant and lack of editing. It was the only large book he wrote.
Some people call this a book about a union strike struggle, which is true up to a point. It is immersed in the Oregon woods – creeks, rivers, plants, flowers, animals, sky and mountains, where the salt means the clear, just back of the Oregon coast near Eugene. A sometimes turbulent river, the Wakonda Auga, eats away at the family land. The rain in September, October and November never seems to stop falling and it provides a constant presence. The forests surround the central rambling family house like a prison. This family house is located across a river, symbolically alone, so no car can drive up to it. The geese, the bears, the wildcats, the hunting dogs all cohabit this still wild woods.
It is also a meditation on masculinity and the tiring clash between education and ‘rugged individualism.’ The educated buffoon with certain kinds of college intelligence versus the ignorant buffoons who have a great grasp of material reality. As if these were the only cultural poles available. It centers on a description of that classic “American type” – the independent male small businessman and his primitive role as a ruler of his family. In this case, daddy Henry. Tiring because, in 2017, this trope is still with us – the ranch owner ethos, the right-wing, self-centered, ‘tough’ guy owner -oil driller, logger, contractor, trucking company honcho. Yes, right-wingers are human beings with personalities and successes. However, practical and mechanical skills like motors, wood-working, hunting, fishing, motorcycles, guns, mechanical skills, animals, even drinking - are not exclusive to small businessmen. The depictions in this book becomes a political stereotype that flatters this class of male profiteers.
It is the early 1960s in the U.S. Kesey’s plot centers around a family of loggers, the Stamper clan, led by old-man Henry. They are the ones who live in that isolated homestead. Henry is a garrulous old-timer who seems to epitomize the stand-up pioneer of the past. The Stampers decide to work for a logging company while the Timber-worker’s Union is out on strike against it. You got it, the whole closely-related bunch of Stamper woodsmen are scabs. Union men play a role in the book and historically, this union was led by Wobblies and later Communists until they were purged, but a Wobbly echo remains in the person of the local's president, Floyd Evenwrite. The out of work and on-strike loggers dominate the town and bars. So the Stamper’s are not favorites in the nearby town of Wakonda, as they are strike-breakers. But this predictably does not bother them.
It is written in a modernist style, full of well-written dialog, where past and present mix, scenes transpose themselves sentence by sentence, first person changes hands, internal meditations intrude, and gradually the book becomes a somewhat magical attempt at telling a story. In a way, the style is difficult and confusing and why the book is a mud-wrestling match. The book is not a straight-on depiction of class struggle, which is never its intention, but more of a group of interior monologues dripping in nature. Actual tree cutting work is depicted in several chapters, which gives you a physical feel for the work if you've never done it yourself. But the capitalist logging company is invisible, and instead the psychology of various individuals dominates.
Kesey himself grew up in Oregon and went to Stanford, so this book reflects his own life. One of the two main characters in this book, Leland Stamper, is Henry's son. He leaves his paterfamilias-dominated family with his unhappy upscale mother and moves back to the East coast where she was from. He could be a Kesey stand-in. There Lee attends Harvard and reluctantly returns, after a failed suicide attempt, to help the family business during the strike. And perhaps prove he's a real man. This cultural class difference lies at the base of the conflict in the book. Lee flirts with madness and perhaps thinks returning home will straighten his psychology and also allow him to extract some revenge for his bullying treatment as a young bookish boy – which made him an absolute stranger to this hard-drinking, yahoo-thinking bunch.
Old boss Henry has another son - like-minded and tough Hank - a younger ‘chip off the old block.’ Hank marries a slim blonde woman, Vivian, from Colorado while on a motorcycle ride. She becomes somewhat unhappy living in the homestead, as she’s a reader and this isolates her a bit, even while she performs all the duties of a virtual pioneer wife - cooking, cleaning, milking the cow, attending to the children, being available for sex. In this book her actual thoughts are almost invisible until the very end, unlike most of the men involved. Hank is the older brother that tormented Lee as a young boy and jealousy erupts, as Leland's plan is to steal Vivian to get back at Hank. The struggle of the brothers dominates the book and Vivian plays the dithering prize until the very end when she eventually stands up for herself.
Young Hank Stamper is a real hero. He is the all-time high school football and wrestling champ, never loses, always considerate, achieving physical feats of endurance, impervious to pain and bad weather, tough as nails, hard working to a fault, relies on himself, loves his wife but not too much. It is his and his father's arrogance that they can get the scab logging job done alone in the cold wind and pouring rain - with only 3 men - that results in tragedy, a tragedy that Hank barely notices. But the book basically has you rooting for his 'heroic' success, against Lee's stupid plan or the inept but numerous unionists.
Kesey depicts the majority of the population of Wakonda as fools of different sorts. Drunks, weaklings, people with secrets, some crazy, blowhards, thugs, false friends, stupid kids - quite a bunch.
The attempts by the union to shut down the Stampers are marked by ridicule and failure. Their one-day picket line is disrupted by a drunken prostitute. Their attempt to send the scab logs downriver ends with them falling in the drink themselves and being rescued by none other than Hank. Their attempts to isolate the Stampers for the most part fail, especially a planned beating in the local bar, which Hank wins. A plot to pretend to buyout the Stampers never comes to fruition. An attempt to burn the log mill results in Hank breaking an agreement and trying to get logs to the company anyway. Only the somewhat bureaucratic union rep from California, a smooth, cultured man, thinks he can wait the Stampers out, and he succeeds. This gives you an idea of Kesey's attitude towards unionism, which was apparently somewhat hostile. Not every hipster is a friend...no matter how 'hip' they seem.
If you want a taste of coastal Oregon, circa the early 1960s, this book will give it to you.
Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" reviewed below.
Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" reviewed below.
And I got it at the library!
October 17, 2017