Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#60 - 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey

For the second time since I've been reading through this list, I've read a book that I was very familiar with because I had seen the movie several times, but never read the book.  As was the case with Deliverance, two things struck me after reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. First off, the book is almost always better, second, I wish I had read the book before I saw the movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is narrated by Chief Bromden, the deaf and dumb, well at least everybody thinks he's deaf and dumb, Indian living in an Oregon Psychiatric Hospital.  The lives of the patients at the hospital follow a fairly mundane routine, that is until the day Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives.  McMurphy, a larger than life character, bucks the trends in the hospital, questions every practice, and isn't afraid to stand up to the powers that be.  Having been transferred from a nearby prison, McMurphy has engineered his move, with the thought that six months in the psych ward would be more pleasant than prison.
Of course he didn't count on being transferred to the ward managed by Nurse Ratched, one of literature's more evil characters.  With the rest of the patients serving as mere pawns in their game, Mr. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched do battle for power within the ward, each trying to show the other who's boss.  But for perhaps the first time in his life, the deck is stacked against him, and almost immediately, we know this will be a battle Mr. McMurphy can't win.
The book works well on so many levels, and made for an interesting and enjoyable read, despite me knowing how it would end.  Chief Bromden provides insight into the goings on at the hospital through his narration, and allows the reader to join him for a front seat to the pending war between nurse and patient. 
While McMurphy is by no means a good person, I found myself cheering for him for a couple of reasons. First off, he isn't nearly as evil as Nurse Ratched, which would make him the good guy in this little battle. Secondly, he finds himself in such a hopeless situation, it is nearly impossible to not only feel for McMurphy, but also the other patients in the hospital.
Author Ken Kesey had a lot of experience with 1950's psychology techniques, having served as a human guinea pig for several years, as well as working in different mental institutions.  He denounces most of their practices, and creates McMurphy into a very sympathetic character, who is caught in the machinery of 'medicine.'  And while Nurse Ratched is pure evil, the entire institution also serves as a worthy antagonist, as we see how the patients are trapped by their surroundings, and are not really offered any help or any cure for their conditions.
Even with such great and iconic characters, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's greatest attribute is the entertaining give and take between McMurphy and Ratched.  Despite McMurphy's inevitable downfall being so apparent, we're given almost continuous hope with every small victory he has against the nurse.  His ability to stand up to Nurse Ratched, and his ability to have the rules of the ward changed in the patient's favor, create a feeling that maybe, just maybe, things will work out.  Of course this only makes McMurphy's fate that much more difficult to swallow, and reminds us that the house always wins.

While I finished this book over a week ago, I have yet to begin number 61.  Instead, I've been pre-occupied with reading books that will be featured at WordFest.  Currently that would be Cures for Hunger by Deni Bechard, an autobiography of growing up with am ex-bank robber father.  But my reading the list will not be put on hold until after WordFest and I will pick my next book this week.

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