With his first book, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey helped father the 60s counterculture, a literary achievement that was overshadowed first by his Merry Prankster exploits and then by Jack Nicholson's indelible performance in the movie. A half century after its publication, the novel still packs a punch.
Mary Ellen Mark
Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy on the Oregon State Hospital set of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975.
Some literary reputations rest upon an industrious output over a span of years that pyramids into an oeuvre, a word tough to say aloud without sounding like Inspector Clouseau. Other literary standings ride upon the writer’s knocking one out of the park the first time at bat—a best-selling cultural phenom that leaves a high, arching shadow, no matter what the quality of the work (if any) that follows. Consider Joseph Heller with Catch-22, Ralph Ellison with Invisible Man, Harper Lee with To Kill a Mockingbird. Ken Kesey, one of America’s great, enduring provocateurs, is another historic long-baller. In 1962, he published his first novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which helped father the 60s counterculture—and unlike its other baby daddies he would never disavow the decade, damning it as reckless and immature. Although the anonymous reviewer in The New Yorker seemed to hold the novel askance by its tail, as if it were a mouse (“the writing is paste-pot colloquial”), Time magazine hailed it and legions of readers adopted it as a personal testament, a freedom tract. Set in a mental institution (Kesey had been a night aide in a veterans’ hospital), its title taken from a children’s nursery rhyme, Cuckoo’s Nest conveys the wonder of a fable with the force of a fist. In January, Viking will publish a 50th-anniversary edition of the novel that may inspire a whole new generation of agitators.
The ingenious simplicity of Kesey’s narrative approach was to treat the page as a proscenium stage. Despite its impressionistic reveries, its invocations of the great wide American space beyond its scrubbed walls, Cuckoo’s Nest conducts its dramatic business with an unabashed, cartoon-stroked theatricality almost entirely within the intense confines of its sanitarium, apart from a fishing jaunt that gives everyone, including the reader, a welcome outdoor recess break. Metaphorically, Kesey’s sanitarium serves as a multiple microcosm for institutional society; it’s a military barracks, prison cellblock, encounter-group bullpen, behavioral laboratory, and Jean Genet-esque plantation where the power hierarchy has been inverted. Here, control and coercion are wielded by a buxom white woman who is the starched heiress of Orwell’s Big Brother—Big Nurse, better known to us as Nurse Ratched—and the three black orderlies under her direction, whom she has winnowed down from a host of candidates until “she’s damn positive they hate enough to be capable.” To use a George Bushism, Nurse Ratched is the Decider; under her unblinking gaze, the privileges, rewards, punishments, dosages, and furloughs for the patients are parceled out or denied. Time itself seems to run at whatever speed Nurse Ratched decrees, the clock slowing down to bring everything to a snow-globe standstill to conjure a sense of suspended animation, zombie twilight. Sparks of resistance are ruthlessly snuffed. Waiting in the wings is the Shock Shop, where you go in as a person and are wheeled out as a vegetable after sufficient voltage to the brain. Into this marshmallow machine of enforced conformity and emasculation rolls Randle Patrick McMurphy, the last of the roughneck individualists, his head and pecker held high. No sacrificial lamb has ever worn a better wolf disguise.
Well, if you’ve seen the movie you know how the rest of the story goes, and even those hermits and latecomers who haven’t seen it will have had it infiltrate the pores through pop allusion. It still obscures our view of the book, the second blur-out in Kesey’s career. Kesey the novelist was first eclipsed by Ken Kesey the psychedelic Pied Piper, whose exploits as the scoutmaster of the graffiti-painted magic bus “Further” and its cast of Merry Pranksters were translated into a kaleidoscopic classic of the New Journalism by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of 1968. To many, Kesey wasn’t a writer but a presider over revels, a shaman for Deadheads. (In Magic Trip, the engrossing new documentary by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, we see Kesey lightly orchestrating chaos as captain of the 1964 cross-country bus trip that took the Pranksters from Beach Boys California to segregated New Orleans to the World’s Fair in Queens, New York. Richly fleshed out with home-movie footage chronicling the trek, it’s a time capsule as LSD tab, or is it the other way around?) Kesey found himself superseded again with the release of the 1975 film version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman, a commercial and critical blockbuster that claimed five Academy Awards, including that for best picture, its rebel yells of raging “Up yours” as permanently scorch-marked on 70s cinema as Al Pacino’s rallying cry of “Attica! Attica! Attica!” in Dog Day Afternoon and Peter Finch’s mad-prophet jeremiads in Network.With Jack Nicholson as R. P. McMurphy, the film version surpassed the novel, converting a mythy archetype into a man alive. In the original, R. P. McMurphy isn’t so much a character as an idea, a principle, an avatar, an untamed figment from the frontier past, a tall tale cut down to human size, a son of toil raised from a ton of soil, to paraphrase a line from P. G. Wodehouse. In an antiseptic world he retains the “man smell” of sweat and labor and musky lust. Influenced by the literary critic Leslie A. Fiedler, Kesey created a primal, cross-tribal bond between McMurphy and Chief Bromden—a towering Native American who pretends to be deaf and dumb and spends his days robotically sweeping the floor—that is James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer and Chingachgook redux.
A cabbage head of Irish blarney and X-ray perception, McMurphy recalls Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, the intruder who strips the regulars of their pipe dreams and forces them to face reality. Where Hickey is a disillusionist, leaving behind the husks of hollow men, McMurphy is a liberator, a nervy blast of air dispelling the pharmaceutical fog of malaise and tedium that has infantilized the mental patients and put them at the mercy of Mommie Meanest, Nurse Ratched. He restores to the men the faces behind their neutral, institutional masks and restores the laughter they’ve suppressed in confinement. “I forget sometimes what laughter can do,” muses Chief Bromden behind his stoic front. In the novel, nothing McMurphy says sounds that funny, so the laughter seems stagy, like the jolly roar at the banquet table in a Victorian romp when some chinless lord cracks a funny. (Only McMurphy’s own laughter sounds authentic, like the “chuckle of a horse.”) No such literary laugh track is required when Nicholson arrives on-screen; devilish humor juts from his eyebrows, the prickly needlepoint of his intonations the mark of an incorrigible joker—he can invest the most innocent request with lewd, caustic insinuation. In movies, stardom equals leadership, and Nicholson’s charisma is a battle cry that results in martyrdom. In the 60s, we liked our martyrs hip and mouthy: Lenny Bruce, hallowed be thy name.
When the bus reached what they all referred to as “Madhattan,” Kesey phoned me right away. “How was it?” I asked, not knowing what to expect. In a classic Kesey response, he said, “Sterling, when we hit Manhattan, the city just rolled over on its back and purred.”
—From “When Kerouac Met Kesey,” by literary agent Sterling Lord, The American Scholar,autumn 2011.
It’s tempting to consign One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to a souvenir piece from the dissident 60s, its protest energy, trippy prophecy, and twitchy paranoia bridging the marijuana grove between the Beats of yore and the hippies ready to sprout. But when I reread it, it seemed more (curse the word) relevant than ever, the oppressive forces it mutinied against having only gotten more immersive and influential in our lives since McMurphy got zapped. Big Nurse has been supplanted by Big Pharma, the pilling of America fulfilling the novel’s vision of weaponized medication: “Miltowns! Thorazines! Libriums! Stelazines! … Tranquilize all of us completely out of existence.” And the Combine, the novel’s metaphor for the silent machinery of social indoctrination, manipulation, and management, stands as a rough draft for the Matrix, the vision of modern existence as a holographic fraud, a covert information grid operating on its own agenda. Few novels before or since have had a firmer handle on shame as an instrument of dehumanization than Cuckoo’s Nest, where, after a night with a prostitute, Billy Bibbit loses his afflicting stutter, only to have it return when Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother, a prospect that sends him to suicide. Whenever William J. Bennett or James B. Twitchell or some other neo-Puritan beef patty calls for a return of shame and stigma to revive this country’s tired moral blood, he should be forced to read the Bibbit section aloud, then hit with a flyswatter. Whatever devilry Kesey may have gotten up to, he was always on the side of the angels. The last piece he published before his death, in 2001, appeared in Rolling Stone, voicing the fear that the country might militarily barge headstrong into Afghanistan to avenge 9/11. Such caution went unheeded, and what followed was a mean, flailing waste of a decade that no one will ever compare to the joyous promise of the 60s before its ideals were gunned down.