February 28, 2012
A couple of reminders of how time flies when you’re having fun and not paying attention came to the fore this week and I thought this would be as good a time as any for a bit of literary housecleaning.
First of all, it completely escaped my usually adequate radar that I had completely spaced out the 50th anniversary of one of the seminal novels of my misspent youth. For reasons quite separate from not having read it, I carried Ken Kesey’s "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" around from the time the paperback edition first saw light during my Army years until well after I’d settled in Park City.
In the meantime, it traveled up and down the west coasts of Sinaloa, Nayarit, and Jalisco and down Haight Street and up Telegraph Avenue and all along Bourbon and Bleeker and the Gulf Coast. I believe it also ended up for a short spell in the property room at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Oh, if that book could talk, the stories it would tell.
Like Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22," Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man" and Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird," Kesey knocked it out of the park with his first at-bat. The characters within the mental institution where the action transpires, whether one of the "chronics" or "acutes" or a member of the staff, have been at my beck and call since I first inhaled his magical prose.
Although I would learn later that Kesey, while studying creative writing as a (Wallace) Stegner Fellow at Stanford, would witness early CIA LSD experiments during his part-time job as a night aide at a local veteran’s hospital, at the time I never once considered the novel as it would be thought of later a precursor of the ’60s counterculture. Even after he admitted writing much of the work while under the influence, my view didn’t change.
I liked it for its straightforwardness and honesty and relevance to the oppressiveness of the "American experience" in the same way I liked Hemingway and Faulkner and Dylan and Miles Davis. Plus the characters and the quotes! Kesey gave Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched enough one-liners to last most freethinking cynics a lifetime.
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The second bit of unfinished business from the book desk has to do with recently received news that another huge literary influence, iconic publisher Barney Rosset, owner of Grove Press, a huge provider of groundbreaking literature, had passed away last week.
An early one-man army in the fight against censorship, Rosset introduced American readers to Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, championed a literary vanguard that included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Che Guevara, Octavio Paz, and Malcolm X, and led the court fights to print unexpurgated versions of D.H. Lawrence’s "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" and Henry Miller’s "Tropic of Cancer."
As is frequently the case with banned books, works once considered outside the mainstream often go on to become classics. Actually, I owe censors an incredible debt for bringing the books in question to my attention. I don’t know that I would have ever come upon Henry Miller, long my favorite American author, if "Tropic of Cancer" hadn’t been banned for obscenity but later found to have "redeeming social value."
Rosset’s first success was with Beckett’s absurdist play, "Waiting for Godot," which he purchased in 1954 for a $150 advance against a 2.5 percent royalty. It initially sold more than 1 million copies at $1 each (currently 2.5 million).
He also went on to found the legendary literary magazine Evergreen Review, which published important early works by such writers as Edward Albee and Susan Sontag. My favorite issues of the Review dealt with the San Francisco poetry renaissance and the North Beach scene.
Taking advantage of Barney’s publishing legacy is not unlike participating in a Masters of Fine Arts Creative Writing program. And there’s no tuition and the assigned reading is not only insightful and highly enjoyable but also brings you quickly up to speed on the Beat poets, the French Surrealists, the German Expressionists, and, like Beckett, dramatists of the absurd.
Well, that pretty much clears up the book desk for now, anyway. There is that stack beside the bed, however, and the one on the windowsill in the bathroom, not to mention the heavily cluttered dining-room table and the top of the refrigerator. And, if I’m not mistaken, I might have glimpsed a few of the usual suspects hiding in the laundry basket.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.