Weeks before Christmas, we received an anonymous order for several copies of Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. This was serious literature, and we were curious to know who was buying the books. Much to our surprise, a renowned local buffoon — someone who, we think it's safe to say without being too presumptuous, was not among those reading it — came in and paid for the books in cash. Stranger transactions have occurred at Turnrow, so we brushed off the incident until, some weeks later, we received a mysterious correspondence, affixed to the front door, announcing that a Secret Book Club had formed in Greenwood. They would not be meeting at our store, the note informed us, and in fact they had already held their first meeting to discuss Kesey's novel. They were sorry we were not included, but the club was "for outsiders interested in reading outsider literature, and in Greenwood at least, we consider you the Literary Establishment."
After the initial sting of being ostracized by fellow outsiders, a staff member mentioned that Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) — Kesey's anticipated follow-up to the highly successful One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — was about a logging family and their clash with neighbors in backwater Oregon. Eureka!, we cried, believing that the Secret Book Club had reached out to us knowing our affinity for lumberjack fiction, or "timber lit."
And so a select few of us — ostracizing, in turn, other staff members — decided to form a shadow secret club to read in the wake of Greenwood's only known secret book club for outsiders. We delved into Kesey's masterpiece and often found ourselves mired in deep, not unlike the sodden Oregon setting.
It took us all roughly a month to read this hefty, log-sized tome, and we all admired it for the challenge, the prose, and the story at its pulpy heart. We also agreed, to varying degrees, that it was a bit windy and pontificating and generally in need of further editing. The main action concerns the Stamper family, headed by booze-hound Henry but carried by the eldest son Hank. The second estranged son, Leland, returns from his elite East Coast college after the suicide of his mother. He has come to settle a score with Hank, his older stepbrother, who was caught years earlier sleeping with Leland's mother. Once on the scene, Leland devises a plan to steal away with Hank's wife, the pretty and insular Viv, and joins the logging team headed by his brother. This is the backbone of the book, wonderfully executed, but we had some disagreements about the effectiveness of the action swirling around this family drama, namely the townsfolk and their grudge against the Stampers, who have opted out of a strike against the local sawmill.
The novel was, the Mississippians among us noted, very Faulknerian in its playful experimentation with time and perspective, though the artistic effect was not as rewarding. But we must concede, as Mississippians who are quick to defend Faulkner from his detractors, perhaps sensing some greater regional truths beneath the literary tricks, that there was a similar soggy magic to Kesey's Notion. Like Faulkner's Southern devotion, Kesey is held in the highest esteem among writers of the region, who have listed Sometimes a Great Notion first among Essential Northwest Books.
Perhaps our greatest insights came when we addressed how Sometimes a Great Notion stacked up to other favorites in the "timber lit" genre — e.g. Serena by Ron Rash, The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux, and The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards. When observed alongside one another, certain themes began to emerge. For instance, two family members (most often brothers) are usually pitted against each other in these logging sagas. There is usually a Greek chorus of lumberjacks or bitter townspeople commenting on the hubris of their fellow man. And finally, one of the main characters is inevitably killed or badly maimed by tumbling logs, sharp saws, falling limbs, or bears. As we recognized these similarities during the book club meeting (also held offsite), the excitement was palpable. It was as if a new school of criticism had emerged! A call for papers was immediately dispatched.
We walked away from our meeting a little more contemplative and perhaps a little wary, looking over our shoulder in the night, whether for secret readers spying in the dark, or falling branches trying to make tragic heroes of us one by one.
Finally, late last week we received a second mysterious order, the title of which we swore not to divulge. Suffice to say, it is an appropriate transition from Kesey, a book well-admired and perhaps even further on the outside. If you'd like to read along, give us a call and drop the secret password: "Timberrrrrrr!"