Tag Archives: “Sometimes a Great Notion”

Sunday scatter: It was a dark and stormy night in the Rainy North Woods …

Our friend Rose City Reader has a running feature on her lively lit blog she calls Opening Sentence of the Day, and it’s just that — a first sentence that, for some reason, catches her eye and ear and compels her to pass it along.

hotIt’s a great idea, and it’s hers, and no way am I going to steal it, because that would be so wrong. But just this once I’m going to borrow it, because after putting new shelves in the office I’ve been restocking some books that have been sitting in boxes in the basement, and that includes pretty much my entire collection of mysteries, which I’ve now been taking out selectively and re-reading with pleasure.

One of my rediscoveries is Gore Vidal’s three murder mysteries from the early 1950s featuring suave public-relations man Peter Sargeant (Vidal wrote them under the pen name Edgar Box) — Death in the Fifth Position, maybe the best backstage ballet murder mystery ever written; Death Before Bedtime, a maliciously funny evisceration of power, sex and corruption in the nation’s capital; and Death Likes It Hot, a mystery about — well, I can’t remember exactly, because I haven’t read it in a long time and I’ve just begun it again. But its first sentence is so delicious that I just have to take a cue from Rose City Reader and pass it along. (I can’t resist adding the second sentence, too, because it underscores the method of Vidal’s elegant wry comedy):

The death of Peaches Sandoe, the midget, at the hands, or rather feet, of a maddened elephant in the sideshow of the circus at Madison Square Garden was at first thought to be an accident, the sort of tragedy you’re bound to run into from time to time if you run a circus with both elephants and midgets in it. A few days later, though, there was talk of foul play.

Ah, the wonderful tastelessness of it all! Isn’t that what we long for in a comedy-of-manners murder mystery, even moreso than an alibi-proof plot?

And that got me thinking of my old friend and fellow ink-stained wretch Vince Kohler, who died too early, at age 53, several years ago, but not before creating his wonderfully seedy reprobate of an amateur sleuth, Eldon Larkin, an “overweight, oversexed reporter” on a daily newspaper in a mythical town on the southern Oregon coast. (Kohler, who when I knew him was a reporter for The Oregonian, where Berkeley escapee Eldon hoped a good scoop might someday land him a job, was once a reporter at the Coos Bay World.)

Continue reading Sunday scatter: It was a dark and stormy night in the Rainy North Woods …

Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion Takes Root

“Remember William Carlos Williams’ description of the pioneer
women who shot their children against the wilderness like cannonballs. Do the same with your novels.”

— Nathanael West

sometimes_notion_150.jpgDismantling Paradise is hard work. Accomplishing it by proxy, such as in writing a novel, also takes its toll. Perhaps that’s why Ken Kesey abandoned the novel form after completing Sometimes a Great Notion in 1964.

He dismantled the myth of Eden at the end of the Oregon Trail.

Americans claimed Oregon, in the words of John Quincy Adams, with the promise “to make the wilderness blossom as a rose, to establish laws, to increase, multiply and subdue the earth.” But the idea that the West is a storehouse of riches to be extracted from raw wilderness, is counterpoint to that other potent myth – that the West is a natural, unspoiled Eden. Many folk long to spend their pilgrimage here in refreshing hot springs, even as money folk see the quick buck in resources, renewable or not.

As Aaron Posner’s stage adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion premieres at Portland Center Stage, and related lectures and discussions explore Kesey’s importance and place in Oregon culture, let’s recall how Kesey exposed that myth as baldly as a clearcut and covered a theme as old as Europe’s invention of America. The empire with no clothes. An empire as precarious as the Stamper house cabled and sandbagged on the brink, the river’s edge.

Here’s D. H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature:

“Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the underconsciousness so devilish. Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Hums the underconsciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! Cackles the underconsciousness.”

And Charles Olson in Call Me Ishmael:

“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

Olson is writing about Melville and Moby Dick, but he’s thinking of the continent and “the restless thing” that is the American in action, out to conquer that stretch of earth between oceans. “It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning.” Americans fancy themselves as democrats, “but their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.” For Olson’s Melville “it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people.”
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Cave doings

The news last week that archaeologists rooting around an Oregon cave found coprolites containing human DNA and dating back 14,000 years has shaken Art Scatter right down to the toes of its foundation myth. Art Scatter emerges from lithic scatter, the circle of rock shards and shavings that stone-age men and woman created as they bent themselves to the task of making objects.

photo25.jpgThe findings in the Paisley Caves in central Oregon on what were then the shores of once-great Summer Lake, connect us to that image — and expand it. Because along with flaked stone spear points, grinding stones and other tool-making remnants, the archaeologists based their most important claims on the coprolites, a word we use to avoid the less elegant “dried dung” or worse. Art Scatter’s concept of itself, it turns out, was a sanitized idea, and the shudder generated by the new evidence involves the implications of this addition to our “image.”
Continue reading Cave doings