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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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It is the destiny of some writers to be linked forever with the
era that gave them fame. F. Scott Fitzgerald inevitably evokes
the 1920s heady mix of jazz and exuberant youth, dinner-
jacketed elegance and corrupted dreams. The years just after
World War II, when Americans in bustling cities and velvet-
lawned suburbs found their new affluence somehow more
disturbing than deserved, belong in the same way to John
Cheever. So it is with Ken Kesey and the 1960s. Thanks not
only to his own writings, but to the writings about him-
accounts of chemically heightened days, mystical
pronouncements, sudden disappearances and frequent arrests,
in newspapers, magazines and especially in Tom Wolfe's book
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test-Kesey has become a symbol
of those years when a generation believed they could alter their
consciousness and the consciousness of a nation through drugs,
sex, and noisy rebellion against society rules. One Flew Over
the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey's first novel, published in 1962 when
he was only 26, earned unusual critical and popular acclaim.
Throughout the decade it was one of the books most likely to
be found in college dorm rooms across the country, perhaps
lodged on a cinder block and plywood bookshelf between
Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Hermann
Hesse's Siddhartha.

In some ways Kesey may seem an odd candidate for the
combination of court jester, pop messiah and serious novelist
he eventually became, for on the surface, his boyhood had a
Norman Rockwell, straightarrow wholesomeness to it. Born in
La Junta, Colorado, in 1935, Kesey moved when still young
with his family to Oregon, the setting for his two novels. His
father, a dairyman, taught him the love of the outdoors that is
manifest in Cuckoo's Nest and in his second book, Sometimes
a Great Notion. Voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in his class at
Springfield High School, Kesey went on to attend the
University of Oregon, where he was a star both on the
wrestling team and in the Drama Department. Writing,
however, was becoming his major interest. His initial efforts
were short stories, but after graduation he attempted a novel,
which remains unpublished. In 1959, a Woodrow Wilson
Fellowship enabled him to enter the creative writing program
at Stanford University.

At Stanford, Kesey studied under writers Wallace Stegner,
Richard Scowcroft, and Malcolm Cowley, but his life outside
the classroom influenced his writing as much as his studies.
San Francisco, with its bohemian North Beach district and its
reputation as a tolerant nesting-place for beat generation
writers like Jack Kerouac, lay only forty miles to the north.
Kesey and some kindred spirits formed their own satellite
artists' colony adjacent to Stanford, on Perry Lane in Menlo
Park. There they wrote, and at the same time experimented
with practices-notably drug use-that in a few years' time
would, for better or for worse, be disrupting lives across
America. Kesey's access to mind-altering substances was made
easier when he volunteered for experiments being performed at
the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital. There he
was given psychedelic drugs, including the little-known LSD,
while doctors noted the drugs' effects on him. When the
experiments ended, Kesey remained at the hospital, employed
now as a psychiatric aide.

Both the drug experiments and the job had an enormous effect
on Kesey's writing. He abandoned the novel he had been
working on and started a new one, set in a mental hospital-the
book that was to become One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
His experience as a psychiatric aide gave him insight into the
workings of the hospital; many of the Acutes and Chronics
described in the novel are thinly-fictionalized versions of
patients he saw at the VA, and he even went so far as to
arrange a sample electro-shock therapy for himself to see what
the treatment was actually like. As for the drug experiments, it
was his experience with hallucinogens that let him write so
vividly from a schizophrenic's point of view: Chief Bromden's
ominous dreams of fog and machinery have their roots in
Kesey's own LSD and peyote-induced visions.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes

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