- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

In Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," a 31-year-old Ken Kesey denigrated his two novels the much celebrated "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and its less famous successor, "Sometimes a Great Notion." Books could be no more than records of a changing world, he announced, while real greatness lied in being the agent of change. "I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph," said Kesey.
As the creator of Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, the young writer had already done much to romanticize the individual and defy an American identity seemingly based on little more than affluence and social conformity. But being a scribe wasn't enough for Kesey, as the "Kool-Aid Acid Test" showed. He succumbed to the lure of playing prophet or, even better, messiah. And instead of pursuing fame as a student of character, he became a famous character himself, the jovial frontman for the Merry Pranksters. A novelty act, unfortunately, instead of a novelist.
But fate confounded both the hopes for literature and the demands of a counterculture. What Kesey had left behind was a solid foundation of achievement. What he hurried off to proved evanescent, to be remembered only as the classic adventure of an indulgent generation. Forty years after the publication of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," an anniversary edition published by Viking ($24.95, 281 pages, illus.) with a text introduction by Robert Faggan has come out. And the novel still has much to offer. It still matters. What public services the Merry Pranksters may have rendered do not. The whole lightning rod business was overrated.
As for Kesey's one great novel, the Indian narrator, Chief Bromden, was disingenuous to begin with. In a loose bundle of hippie suspicions that power thrives on hatred, that order is the opposite of freedom, that democracy is a mere cover for authoritarian impulse the chief departs from '60s orthodoxy only in imagining that he and his fellow patients are being controlled by the electrical signals of an elaborate machine. A walking cliche too, the narrator shows that in a crazy world, only the insane can discern what's really going on. Most striking now, though, are his inconsistencies.
What is one to make of the chief's occasional lapses into authorial omniscience? Describing one of the black boys who work the mental ward, he notes, "His mother was raped in Georgia while his papa stood by tied to the hot iron stove with plow traces, blood streaming into his shoes. The boy watched from a closet, five years old and squinting his eye to peep out the crack between the door and the jamb …" Here Kesey left many obvious questions unaddressed like how Chief Bromden would know this tormenting story and whether the black boy himself would remember such details as the blood streaming into his father's shoes, let alone divulge them at work. Such flair-ups of extra sensory perception are not even consistent with the chief's regular hallucinations.
Blame such problems, then, on an excess of storytelling enthusiasm, which is, in fact, the main virtue of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Indeed, the novel's singular attraction does not lie in its Big Statement about society and social norms. Nor was it ever much in the way of a muckraking classic, though its gallows humor about the Shock Shop says a great deal about the inhumanity of such treatment (of course electroshock therapy is still used in moderation today). Also unsettling is the tattletale ethos of the hospital's "therapeutic community" in which patients are encouraged to rat out each other's psychological issues. But the novel's greatest merits lie in the character of R.P. McMurphy and his contest of wills with Nurse Ratched.
"He's a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel," says the marketing copy on the back jacket of my old paperback. That's not quite the sum of it, but more to the point than most discussions of the book's political message and Freudian implications. Though he clearly aimed to write a profound novel, Kesey succeeded only at the more prosaic task of finding compelling characters and setting them loose in a well structured plot.
The central conflict of the story is beautifully simple. On one side is a bad guy, Nurse Ratched, who wants to control her ward as much as any comic book villain ever wanted to rule the world. And she is formidable. Because of psychiatry's jurisdiction over the private self, her tyrannical impulse to remake others according to her own whims, goes unchecked. On the other side is one of the best talkers ever set loose in an American novel, a con man so crisply depicted and so charming one can easily imagine losing a fortune to him at the poker table and signing up for his every crazy scheme. Formal power versus personal charisma.
This contest plays out over a series of battles, each one upping the ante perfectly. So long as neither character is willing to back down, which of course they never do, the contest slowly becomes a struggle to the death. In McMurphy's case this means, finally, permanent unconsciousness by lobotomy, while in Nurse Ratched's case, it means control of her ward.
It is telling that the primary arena is group therapy, where these male psychiatric patients appear for ritual emasculation. "Cuckoo's Nest" is a romantic action story writ small in the hallways and common rooms of a mental ward. The hero, of course, perishes, but not until he has liberated his friends and irrevocably damaged the authority of Nurse Ratched.
Ken Kesey died in November of last year, a story that would have received more notice in a less eventful time. The books most often mentioned in his obituaries were "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," the two main sources of his fame. One made him a famous writer; the other made him a famous character. But had he written more adventures like "Cuckoo's Nest," he could have been even bigger.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.

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