Sometimes a Great Notion is a great American novel if I’ve ever read one (and I’ve read a few). It’s long and meandering, overflowing with detail. The characters are exceptional; they’re stubborn and angry and very much alive. The setting is soggy and green, with big trees and beer drinking – just like a real Oregon winter.
The novel tells the story of Wakonda, a fictional logging town on the Oregon coast. Virtually everyone is on strike, except for the Stampers who are continuing to log and jeopardizing the whole strike, for no reason except that they’re renegades like that. The crux of the story is the broken, vengeful relationship between Hank Stamper, the oldest son of patriarch Henry, and the leader of the clan since Henry was injured, and his younger half-brother Lee. Hank is strong, hardworking, and prone to fist fights. Lee is an intellectual who spent much of his life on the east coast and hasn’t logged a day in his life until he returns to Oregon.
Hank and Lee are surrounded by a host of other characters, both family members and townspeople, whose stories are woven into the Stamper story like the soft-needled green pine saplings that grow in droves around the ancient giants in an Oregon forest.
This plethora of stories and perspectives makes diving in to the novel a little difficult. Kesey constantly bounces from one character’s perspective to another without chapter or section breaks to clue in readers. Frequently there are multiple perspectives at once (one in parenthetical notes sprinkled among the other). For the first 100 pages, this meant I had to keep careful track and watch for the perspective switches. From then on though, I knew the characters well and the switches became more obvious. The style became fascinating instead of hard work. Kesey also throws in a little light stream-of-consciousness in tense situations, especially between the two brothers. Nothing too extreme, but enough to heighten certain moments to great effect.
What ties all these other characters and their stories to the main plot line is that every character, major or minor, is yearning to be true to him or herself. Some are succeeding, many are failing, but the striving is what Sometimes a Great Notion is all about. Hank (and a minor character called Biggy Newton too) goes through life fighting and knowing that fights are inevitable, but is just so tired of being sized up and having to size up other big men. Lee is struggling to deal with his identity as a Stamper, and yearns most to win against his brother, to steal back what he feels Hank stole from him. Viv, Hank’s wife, has given up the things she swore she never would, like cutting her hair short and having birds. Joe Ben, a Stamper cousin, is both religious and superstitious, and optimistic to a fault. He is also a bit of a foil – as a young man he struggled in his father’s shadow, but later he is exactly who he wants to be, and is the happiest character in the book for it.
The yearning among the characters to be true to themselves comes to a climax as the novel closes. I don’t think it’s too much of a giveaway to quote Lee when he says that each of us has a stronghold that can never be taken, only surrendered, and he wants his back:
“Which meant winning back the strength I had bartered away years before for a watered-down love. Which meant winning back the pride I had exchanged for pity.”