Essays / Features

Straight from the Cuckoo’s Nest

by Charles McNair

Featured Bloomer Charles McNair writes about one of his major literary inspirations.

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo‘s nest.

I proudly go on the record to declare that Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has been for many years my favorite . . . and most inspiring . . . read.

I will also disclose that if I could be gifted by the muse of Alabama-born writers to create sentences and paragraphs as visually astonishing as any other writer’s, living or dead, I would write like Kesey. His psychedelic, shape-shifty prose amazes me on every page.

I here offer proof, from the first pages of Cuckoo’s Nest. In the passage to follow, we meet Nurse Ratched, aka Big Nurse, who runs a ward in a mental health facility. She symbolizes all organizations and institutions that dehumanize—whether mental patient, student, employee, soldier, whomever. Kesey offers Big Nurse as a cultural dominatrix—a steely, remorseless controller of her environment and all those trapped hopelessly in its sticky orthodoxy, its behavioral web.

Kesey introduces Big Nurse through the eyes of a giant American Indian, Chief Broom, who has been a resident of the mental health ward, pretending to be deaf and mute, since the end of World War II.

The everpresent question: Do we believe what Chief Broom sees, what he tells us?

I’m mopping near the ward door when a key hits it from the other side and I know it’s the Big Nurse by the way the lockworks cleave to the key, soft and swift and familiar she been around locks so long. She slides through the door with a gust of cold and locks the door behind her and I see her fingers trail across the polished steel–tip of each finger the same color as her lips. Funny orange. Like the tip of a soldering iron. Color so hot or so cold if she touches you with it you can’t tell which.

Bloom reader, remember at all moments that Chief Broom sweeps up floors in an institution. Kesey gives us a classic unreliable narrator, meant to keep us guessing whether Broom sees what’s real or hallucinated. When Big Nurse catches her staff idling, leaning on mops, there’s hell to pay:

She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from limb, she’s so furious. She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform, and she’s let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. She looks around her with a swivel of her huge head. Nobody up to see, just old Broom Bromden the half-breed Indian back there hiding behind his mop and can’t talk to call for help. So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load.

Every page and paragraph and sentence of this novel feels just this vivid to me, hypercharged with creative energy and vitality. The book splits the back of its spine with anger. It telescopes out its arms to capture Kesey’s outrage at the powers that be.

We humans love our martyrs. We build whole religions around them sometimes, faiths based on the willingness of one human to suffer and even give up sweet life itself for the sake of our fellows. Think of the beloved martyrs: Jesus, St. Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Socrates, the Maccabees.

Add, in literature, Randle McMurphy, Kesey’s protagonist.

Wild as the wind, a big scar-nosed Irish brawler and gambler, a red-blooded, womanizing, card-playing, hard-drinking man’s man, McMurphy shambles into Big Nurse’s ward to serve out the remainder of a conviction for battery. He’s looking to avoid hard labor with his sentence, and he thinks easy days lounging inside the mental health clinic will keep blisters off his hands and give him a chance to win hands of poker money from other ward inmates.

But McMurphy finds himself like Shane, or like Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” as the only man with the cojones and will to stand up for townsmen who have been subdued by fear, turned into cowering rabbits by the drugs and coercions and subtle emasculations of Big Nurse and the mental health system. Once McMurphy lands on the ward, Big Nurse begins a gambit to break and control him as she has all others. That’s our plot—the uncontrollable force meets the immovable object.

Like every Western, the story will lead to a showdown, and the gradual escalation of the war of wills between McMurphy and Big Nurse brings rising, page-turning tension.

Kesey as a young man in the 1950s worked the night shift in a mental health facility much like the one he describes. In Menlo Park, California, he saw firsthand the enervating, soul-killing effects of institutional care on many men he honestly believed weren’t crazy when they came in, but certainly closer to it when they left.

That experience convinced Kesey that big, institutional power corrupted absolutely, and he spent much of his life battling The Man . . . or The Combine, as he termed the sinister controlling powers in Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey emerged as an emblem of the rebel writer, a man who boarded a retrofitted bus and famously traveled the U.S. during the hippie years with The Merry Pranksters. Tom Wolfe wrote about Kesey and crew in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Kesey came to epitomize the wily, spirited David who battled Goliath, sensationally fueled by psychedelic drugs and attitude, a real-life Randle McMurphy with a pen in hand and The Grateful Dead as his soundtrack.

These twinned Kesey characters—written and lived—greatly appealed to me as a writer. But nothing affected me more profoundly than what I found stylistically on the pages.

When Kesey started graduate school at Stanford, studying creative writing under Wallace Stegner, he heard of a government program that paid people to take part in experiments with psychedelic drugs.

Remember that these were the days smack between the Beatniks and the hippies, a transition time in lots of cultural areas—civil rights, social rights, science, music, theater. History would show us that this hinge point in the 1950s actually served as staging area for the great collective nervous breakdown of society called The Sixties. And here, at the edge of the great convulsion, our government paid smart young men to take LSD and psilocybin and other hallucinogens so their effects could be studied.

You can study them, in fact, directly on the pages of Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey’s psychedelic experiences mainlined directly into his fiction. His writing phosphoresces, morphs, woozes in and out of reality, yet always remains under such immaculate control that the impossible seems normal and beautiful and acceptable. Like the magical realists, Kesey gives us the impossible with rainbows around it, music strumming along, flowers spilling from overhead clouds.

Visualize Nurse Ratched telescoping out those arms. Think of her swelling up to the size of a tractor, smelling like an overtaxed, burning engine. Images like these surely come from the world of drugs. When Ken Kesey unlocked the doors of perception with LSD, the gifts of the light fantastic in his mind poured out onto the page, into our literature.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying hallucinogens are good. I’m not saying hallucinogens are bad. I’m not saying experimentation with hallucinogens is right or wrong.

I am saying thank goodness Ken Kesey discovered psychedelic drugs. I believe that because this great writer turned on and tuned in, he created some of the most astonishing sentences and images written in the last century.

As I wrote Pickett’s Charge, my newest novel (Livingston Press, 2013), I mindfully employed devices Kesey used in casting his spell.

My novel’s point of view? We see events through the eyes of a 114-year-old man, Threadgill Pickett, the last Confederate soldier. The ghost of his long-dead twin brother appears to him in an Alabama nursing home with big news: Only one Yankee veteran still lives, up north. So Threadgill flees the nursing home and heads out to fight the last battle of the Civil War . . . in 1964.

His journey brings to mind (hopefully . . . intentionally) the hero of the world’s first novel, Don Quixote. Threadgill, like the Man of La Mancha, quests through life and times surpassingly strange to him.

Does he perceive reality? Do his unreliable, foggy, sometimes fevered observations allow the historical novel set in the 1860s and the 1960s to take on aspects of myth and tall tale, to explore old questions of race and honor and vendetta . . . and to entertain (and maybe even fascinate) a reader . . . in a fresh, original way?

If it works, thank Ken Kesey. I read and re-read his writing as I worked many years on this book, hoping for even just a time or two, a page or two, a chapter or two, to amaze my readers the way Cuckoo’s Nest always amazes me.

Bloom Post End


Charles McNair is author of Pickett’s Charge and the Pulitzer-nominated novel, Land O’ Goshen, (St. Martin’s Press, 1994) He has served as Books Editor at Paste Magazine since 2005.

Click here to read Kevin Hartnett’s feature piece on Charles McNair.

Homepage photo credit: qthomasbower via photopin cc

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