Tag Archives: American literature

One Flew East, One Flew West

“What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”

Counterculture icon Ken Kesey

I was sitting in the backyard reading the closing chapter of a book. I sat under our dying apple tree where many flowers flourish and hummingbirds buzz right past your head. I looked up between paragraphs and there was a little bunny looking directly at me, not seven feet away. It was looking at me like it wanted to be friends but didn’t know how to start the conversation without sounding awkward. Neither did I. Before I could say something warm and endearing, it turned tail and scampered. The book I was reading was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t know if there’s any significance. Somehow it seemed like the right book to be reading at that moment.

And I hadn’t decided to finally read the book this year because of little rabbits or because I was only waiting for the point at which our political system turns into a national madhouse. No, sometimes I just like to save good things for later. Like a reward, sort of, for being patient.

So what can one say about Cuckoo’s Nest that hasn’t been said already, except “Yup, it’s a great novel. You guys were right.” And I already knew they were right, from having seen the movie when it first screened back in 1975. Jack Nicholson gave a performance like nothing else I’ve ever seen. But most of the credit goes to Ken Kesey. He created R.P. McMurphy, and if there’s a more unforgettable character in all of American literature, let him or her swagger forward. Or, to use his own words, “I’ll eat my hat.”

Another unforgettable character is the narrator. Chief Bromden, tormented by memories, fears and visions, plays a small and silent part in the plot, but is otherwise a keen fly on the wall of the mental ward. The Chief is especially obsessed with McMurphy and the social whirlwind he stirs up in the ward. The Chief’s own mental state, already vulnerable, is caught up in the whirlwind. His impressions, his sometimes streaming consciousness, are racked by machine imagery and terror of something he calls the Combine—a huge greedy corporate/police apparatus that seems to be his personal metaphor for oppression of the working class. Kesey, only twenty-six when he published Cuckoo’s Nest, came straight from a working class environment himself.

Politically correct Kesey is not: women and numerous minorities don’t come out looking too good in this novel. But Kesey isn’t asking you to judge them in a vacuum. He wants you to see everyone, all their cruelty, the pettiness, the weakness, as products of the Combine. And he wants you to see Randle Patrick McMurphy, his fearless individualism and his rowdy zest for life, as the last, best hope for shutting the ugly thing down once and for all.

In case I wasn’t clear before about how I really feel about this book: If you believe there’s an American novel that soars any higher or morally overshadows Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, it better be something by Steinbeck.

“Trip Wires”, a new story collection by Sandra Hunter

“She drowsed and wakened. Surely someone would find them. Was it better to be shot than to watch her child starve? In the cold, she held him close, and he slept and woke through the night, sucking at her dry breasts.”

In her new story collection Trip Wires, Sandra Hunter has an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of ordinary people caught in the widely-scattered wars that have defined, tragically, the beginning decades of this millennium. These are the ones who can get out and the ones who can’t. These are ordinary people who, in desperation to survive, do extraordinary things.

Their stories are disturbing. With harrowing realism Hunter shows us their poverty, their scars, their journeys, their nightmares, their courage. And sometimes their humanity. The above excerpt comes from the story “Borderland”. That story is a full-force punch to the gut, depicting a young mother fleeing a nameless war in a lifeless land. But the young mother discovers human kindness in places and proportions that no one could imagine.

These stories are not for the faint of heart, and it is natural for us to avoid emotional “trip wires” that unleash the shocks and horrors of war. But the suffering is real and, lying just beneath the surface of our world, we can’t avoid it forever. Maybe, with the insights of authors like Sandra Hunter, we can learn why we need to urgently defuse those senseless conflicts that have booby trapped our present and maybe our entire future.

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway

“If he wanted us he would have signaled us. If he don’t want us it’s none of our business. Down here everybody aims to mind their own business.”

“All right. Suppose you mind yours then. Take us over to that boat.”

It’s Hemingway at his hard-boiled best. It’s a tough and ready rum-runner named Harry, who smuggles booze and criminals between Cuba and the Florida Keys during the darkest days (and nights ) of the depression. It’s just a tropical storm away from Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools.

And, using post-modernist devices like shifting narration between characters and then into third person, Hemingway nails down the misery, the desperation, that the Great Depression left in its wake. He adds a final section to this short novel, providing stark social commentary through several characters who have little or no connection to the main story line. But, though the book’s structure may be flawed, “Papa” Ernie’s insight into the suffering and cruelty of the times is right on course.

“Released”

I have a weakness for fiction set in small towns. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone. Look at the popularity of Peyton Place.

Well, the small Nebraska town in which author Bonnie Lacy set her novel Released is a bit of a Peyton Place itself. It’s a battleground, in fact, for the ceaseless clash of good and evil. And as that battle plays out, Lacy unwinds a powerful story of the humanity that resides in even the most hardened or sickened of souls. She gives us deep insight into the mind and feelings of an abused child—one of society’s saddest secrets—as well as the mind and heart of the abuser, all with a sensibility that is rare.

Downtown Osceola: north side of courthouse square

Clarence is an elderly convict full of bitterness. Bea is an abused child living in terror. Katty is her abusive, addicted mother. Their lives intersect, and a decades-old mystery is re-awakened. Told with wit and realism, the mystery grows into a nail-biting life or death struggle. The combined strength of unselfish love and religious faith is the only alliance that can champion the good side of that struggle.

Released is the first book in Bonnie Lacy’s Great Escapee Series. I am anxious to pursue whatever truths are yet to unfold.

WHITE BIRD, by RUTA SEVO

“It’s an adventure you haven’t had yet, Thomas. Sit.”

Thomas smiled. He was thinking of his dog Sally.

For a long time I’ve had a fascination with westerners who expatriate themselves to remote places in the Asian Subcontinent. The way they make full and rich lives for themselves, steeped in eastern tradition, and yet often accomplish great things for the welfare of the local inhabitants, somehow intrigues me. I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories. Well, here’s a pretty amazing book:

Picture

In her novel White Bird, writer-scholar-translator Ruta Sevo skillfully explores the unusual demographics of present-day Nepal and the clash of cultures that confronts an American visitor and raises some very fundamental questions about what life is, or ought to be, all about. Thomas Rusak, the American, has come to Nepal with his brother’s ashes in search of the most meaningful spot for scattering them to the wind and rain. This mission turns, necessarily, into a search for his brother’s mysterious past in Nepal, a past that Thomas feels he must unearth in order to finally understand his brother and the lifelong complexities of their relationship. And Thomas cannot open up that past without intruding intimately into the lives of two extraordinary women.

As it turns out, Sevo tells this story with such pungent detail, such a “sensory onslaught” of Nepali life and landscapes, that it becomes more than just a story about individuals. It becomes a story about cultures. It becomes the equally mysterious search for the essence of that great magnetic pull that eastern philosophies have over westerners, who sometimes chuck it all for the rustic spiritual life in places like Nepal. Thus, White Bird is a dazzling, swooping mystery that lifts itself to different altitudes. Like all good mysteries, there may be answers for every question on one level, but ten questions for every answer on another.

When does the Depressive phase kick in?

It’s kind of a mania: this book thing. I’m sure for people who are on their second or third book it’s easier to keep things in balance. But I’m a bundle of obsessive thoughts and impulses, with this debut book of mine. It’s out, it’s actually out. It’s listed. It’s on the market. It can be bought and, interestingly, it can also be sold.

In a week or two I’ll officially announce it. They tell me that timing is critical when it comes to PR. Yes, I must personally promote and PR the book. I don’t have a problem with that except my brain wants to work on PR strategy during the night when I should be sleeping so I get up at 3:30 and eat some Cheerios and turn on my computer and do book stuff until my brain starts to shut down around 6 and I can try some more sleeping but it’s never enough to catch me up and so I end up writing sentences like this. I think I’m losing my grip on reality. Maybe it wasn’t such a solid grip in the first place.

Princess Leia's characteristic hairstyle.jpg

It doesn’t help that I’m reading Postcards From the Edge, and thereby seeing and hearing how messed up brains can get. What a powerful book, by the way.

Wait. I feel a random nap coming on. So I must seize the moment. Before my brain realizes it’s time to start in obsessing again about sundry matters: like the precise date and time to announce my book and the precise wording to use that will strike that perfect balance. You know, that perfect balance between obnoxious and apologetic. Somewhere between gangster and Gandhi.