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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Barron's Booknotes
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Cuckoo's Nest met with critical praise seldom lavished on first
novels. "A great new American novelist," said Jack Kerouac,
the beat poet whose life and work had profoundly influenced
Kesey. The distinguished critic Mark Schorer termed the book
"a smashing achievement." And it was a financial success
sufficient to allow Kesey two years to research and write his
next novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. The story of a family of
Oregon loggers as fiercely individualistic as Randall
McMurphy, it is a more ambitious novel than Kesey's first but
perhaps less successful. It was made into a motion picture in
1971. After Notion's publication in 1964, Kesey embarked on
what was to be an extremely extended vacation, functioning
less as a writer than as one of the public entertainers who
helped to usher in the Aquarian Age. As recounted in Wolfe's
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Kesey and his band of "Merry
Pranksters" travelled the nation in a psychedelically painted
bus, ingested large quantities of drugs, and in general made
themselves an almost irresistible target to those groups, like the
police, unwilling to tolerate such rambunctious attacks on
social conventions. Kesey was arrested three times for
possession of marijuana, fled to Mexico after faking a suicide
note, and, on his return to California, served five months in jail.

Upon his release, he returned to Oregon to farm and to write,
and there, except for sojourns to England and Egypt, he has
remained. In 1973, he published a group of short pieces,
Kesey's Garage Sale. Subsequently he worked on a new novel,
portions of which appeared in the magazine Esquire.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remained widely read and
studied well after its publication. A play based on the novel
enjoyed long runs off-Broadway and in many parts of the
country; the movie made from it (over Kesey's protests) in
1975 garnered all five major Academy Awards, the first film to
achieve that feat in nearly 40 years. Clearly, something about
the tale of McMurphy and Nurse Ratched fighting for the souls
of the Chief and the other patients generates a powerful appeal.
Perhaps some of that appeal lies in the book's fast-paced,
comic-strip humor, and in the comic-strip simplicity of its
distinctions between good and evil. More seriously, the book's
message-that one must never be afraid to laugh, nor to rebel
against a society that values efficiency and conformity above
people-has not staled: it may be more to the point now than it
was in 1962. And, despite McMurphy's defeat, this message,
too, is a curiously satisfying, optimistic and American one, for
it suggests that though the battle will be difficult and will claim
some victims, there is a chance it can be won. We see that in
Chief Bromden's leap from the ward window out into a world
where men can be free.

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

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