Book Review – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest ranks among the best of the Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century series. It’s the last book in the chain that I read. Had I realized the exceptional quality of the writing, I would’ve explored it much sooner. I never thought a story about inmates in an asylum could engross me so much. It sounds trite, but the more I read the more the story appealed to me. Kesey did a monumental job with his allegorical style, plot and character development and choice of point of view. It amazed me to see all three of these elements done so well in the same book.

I enjoyed the underlying subtext. While ostensibly about a group of mental patients, the theme addressed issues of conformity and submission to authority. As I read, I kept thinking the book came out in the late 1960’s. The 1962 publication date astonished me. That showed the visionary genius of its author. Mr. Kesey recognized some underlying currents in society before mainstream audiences did. That’s one reason why we regard One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a classic today.

Most authors choose to present a narrative that is either character driven or plot driven. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest demonstrated that rare exception where I witnessed both. The author created a host of unusual characters for the novel. The protagonist, McMurphy stood out as a true original in the annals of American literature. The author introduced him as such.

He’s got on work farm pants and shirt, sunned out till they’re the color of watered milk. His face and neck and arms are the color of oxblood leather from working long in the fields. He’s got a primer-black motorcycle cap stuck in his hair and a leather jacket over one arm, and he’s got on boots gray and dusty and heavy enough to kick a man half in two. He walks away from Cheswick and takes off the cap and goes to beating a dust storm out of his thigh. One of the black boys circles him with a thermometer but he’s too quick for them; he slips in among the Acutes and starts moving around shaking hands before the black boy can take good aim. The way he talks, his wink, his loud talk, his swagger all remind me of a car salesman or stock auctioneer- or one of those pitchmen you see on a side show stage, out in front of his flapping banners, standing there in a striped shirt with yellow buttons, drawing the faces off the sawdust like a magnet. (Page 11)

Kesey left no doubt as to what readers could expect from McMurphy through his opening description. I liked the way the author showed him walking through the group shaking hands. This passage demonstrated the character’s persona while at the same time advancing the plot. I’ve never read an author who did this so proficiently.

I don’t think it possible to have selected a better narrator than Chief Bromden. I always enjoy works with “unreliable” narrators, but Bromden took this to another level. He falsely portrayed himself as deaf and dumb to the other inmates. This gave him access to information other potential narrators wouldn’t have. He obviously suffered from mental illness as evidenced by his belief the hospital staff put a transmitter into his pills. This gave Kesey the leeway for Bromden to express what he believed other characters were thinking similar to omniscient point of view. He achieved this while staying in the mind of just one character. Brilliant!

I’d recommend One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to anyone looking for a good read. I’d place it on a list of “must reads” for aspiring novelists. Someone once said about Peter Sellers, “The man was so talented, you can’t emulate him: you can only admire him.” Those words aptly apply to Ken Kesey’s craftsmanship of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.