Sometimes A Great Notion

Usually I share only my pictures on this blog, but recently I have started writing, and I hope in the future to share some of this. I find that writing helps me to feel at peace with myself when trying to think through a tough situation or when reminiscing about good times. However, my writings are not yet ready to share, so I thought it would be nice to post something that is inspiring to me.

This is an excerpt from Ken Kesey's second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. I recently read this book, and it has quickly become one of my favorites. This part of the book is so powerful and demonstrates Kesey's ability to bring to life the inner struggle of personal identity. It is hilarious and sad, confusing, and comforting, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. 

In this part of the story Leeland is writing a letter to his friend Peter about his current trip out west to visit his estranged family. The except is fairly self contained, so hopefully it won't have too many unexplained references. I do want to explain, for those unfamiliar with the processes of logging, that in the third paragraph Lee is describing his current experience of working as a logger with his family. 

I would apologize for my delay in writing were I not convinced you would enjoy, much more than an apology, my quaint explanation for this letter: I have just come up to my room after a grisly hassle with Brother Hank, (do you recall? I think you made acquaintance with his ectoplasmic counterpart in a coffee house in the village.) and I decided it would only be fair to give my nerve endings the solace of a joint. The pot was safe where I had secured it - cuddled in a cold cream jar at the bottom of the shaving kit Mona gave me - but where the bleeding papers: pot without papers, man, what kind of funny shit is that? It is beer without an opener. It is opium without a pipe. How can something so hip as a Pond jar full of pot be cursed to unfulfilled frustration by a lack of papers? I rant, I rave with frustration. I even consider rolling it in magazine paper. Then... a flashbulb of remembrance; my wallet! of course; didn't I put a pack of zig-zag gummed wheatstraws in my wallet that night we all got so zonked at Jan's and the three of us composed that immortal children's classic Fuckleberry Hen? I quick to my trousers and feel for my wallet. Ah. Ah yes. There are the papers, and the typed story still folded about them - 'See. See Rooster Booster run. See him jump Fucklberry Hen. See him jam it in. Jam, jam, jam' - and what else flits out of the little package and flutters to the floor like a dying moth? A scrap of lipsticked Kleenex on which is written Peters' department phone number. I sigh. I languish with memories. Good old Peters... back there enjoying the good academic life. Hmm... y'know, do the tortured soul good to commune with him. I believe I shall drop him a line.

So, I transcribe here that line (if this damned unreliable ball-point pen stops skipping) while I blow up the three joints I have rolled. Three, I hear him gasp, three joints? Alone up in his room? Three? Yes, three, I answer calmly. For after this particular day I feel entitled to the 1st, I want the 2nd, and oh God I need the 3rd! The 1st is just payment for being good and working hard. The 2nd is for enjoyment. The 3rd is to remind me to never never never again be duped into believing anything but the worst of one's relatives. As a variation of W. C. Fields' great truth, How can anyone who likes dogs and little children by anything but all bad?

First, as I fire up number one, I will give you what brief history I can afford: since the day I fled the realm of the mind for that of the muscle I have been cursed by having to pay homage to the wounds of both: physically, I have been forced for ten fiendish hours a day six solid days a week to subject my sinews to such sadistic stress as walking, running, stumbling, fumbling, falling down and getting back up and walking again as I all the while drag a rusty iron cable the obstinance of which is rivaled solely by the obstinance of the gargantuan log I am supposed to tie said cable around. I have had my bodily bones bunked and cracked, chunked and whacked by every rock stump root trunk within a fifty-foot radius as I fled that log so that cable wouldn't jerk it over me; I have had to stand there pant and fainting trying to endure berryvines, nettles, sunstroke, blisters, mosquitos, no-see'ums and prickly heat in the brief respite allotted me while I wait for that cable to drop its log a hundred yards away and come hissing and snapping back for a new assault (something of Dante, don't you think?) I mean not only have I suffered all these physical horrors, but I have, if anything, in the land where I came to give my mind a rest, increased my mental menaces a millionfold! (Pardon my bad alliterative and endure my brief intermission while I um umm puff puff relight this joint... there we go.)

Dearest comrade, the point I wish to make with all this preambling penmanship is simply that I have been far too put upon to get either my lazy mind or my lazy ass to repaying your wonderful letter's most welcomed visit to this prehistoric land. Also, and at the risk of being honest, I actually have been more than ever beset by the slings and arrows of outrageous introspection... more than I was a month ago, even. And for a couple of ironic reasons; you see, with the passing of these last few nightmare weeks here in this house I came to raze, living with these ogres I came to annihilate, I had contracted a malady I thought myself completely immunized against; I have come down with a bad case of Benevolence, with complications of Fondness and Distended Sympathy. You laugh? You snigger in your affected lipbeard that I could let my resistance run so low as to fall victim to that virus? Well, if you do, I can only point next door and smugly say, "Okay, my snide friend, you live three weeks in the same house with that chick and let's see if you can keep up your resistance!"

For I believe that 'twas she, the chick, the wild woods flower wife of my sworn-destroyed brother, that stayed my vengeful hand and, till now, has kept my wrath from falling. Three weeks lost in my plot. Because you must understand it was she that my mind sought out as the undipped heel of my Achilles-like brother, and she was the only thing in the house which I hesitated to harm. This bind was brought to stalemate by the fact that my brother has been especially nice to me; I couldn't hate him quite enough to offset my fondness for the girl. It was even-steven. Until tonight.

You should, Peters, at this point, begin to detect to plot line even though you join the story one hundred pages deep. To sum up, in as you have missed the first four installments. There are only these facts to establish: Bitter Leland Stamford Stamper returns home intending to do his older half-brother some unconceived but horrible harm for diddling young Leland's mama, but in spite of his good intentions he has gradually been duped into sympathy for the arch step-fiend: we find Leland at the start of this episode, pitifully drunken and reasonless after and evening's sipping of this sympathy. Things look bad. It looks like he's going under. But, as you shall see, an unusual incident, almost a miracle, snaps our hero to his senses. It is this miracle for which I now give thanks by lighting this second joint at the alter of the Great God Pot...

We had just returned from a little foray into the woods and snacked on the leftovers of Viv's wonderful supper, and I had been waxing more and more banal as the evening wore on, and somehow the conversation between myself and my brother had wandered arm-in-drunken-arm through talk of school - "What actually is it you been studying?" To talk of graduation - "Whatcha aim to do with it to make a living?" - to talk of this and that and finally to the talk of music, of all things, Peters, music! To tell you the truth, I can't recall how we arrived at the subject - alcohol, exhaustion and pot have eroded the edges from my memory - but it seems we were discussing the merits of life in the lovely but provincial West Coast as compared to the sophisticated but ugly East Coast when, in the course of championing the East, I mention that the one edge that the West Coasters must concede to the East was that it boasted far greater opportunities to hear good music. Hank was ready to concede no such thing... listen:

"Be easy," said he in this quaint way, "ain't you awriting your own numbers on the scale? What you reckon to be good music up against what my ideas are... might not fit all the notches. Just what do you mean 'good music'?"

I was in a philanthropic state of mind so for the sake of argument I agreed to meet him on fair ground; remembering the old, remorseless driving rhythm and blues 78's of Joe Turner and Fats Domino that Hank used to assail my boyhood nights with. I agreed we would speak only of jazz. And after the usual amount of hemming and hawing and beating around the bush we got down to the thing all jazz enthusiasts are always working toward with their discussions; we went to get out our records. Hank commenced rummaging through draws and boxes. From my suitcase upstairs I carried down my locked attache case of favorites. But once again Hank and I realized very quickly that, even though we had arbitrated Jazz the Good Music we would discuss, we were still worlds apart as to what was Good Jazz.

"That stuff of yours," said Hank, "sounds like the musicians all squat to pee. La lee la lee la lee."
"That stuff of yours," said I, "sounds like the musicians all suffer from St. Vitus' Dance. Bam bam bam bam bam, the epileptic stomp."

And Hank said, "That manure they're playing there hasn't got any more balls than it does beat. I like something with a little more balls on it."
And I said, "Such a prejudice must limit you terribly."
And he said, "Are we gonna be like that?"
And I said, "I should think you would want to at least exclude such things as the female sex from such a sweeping statement."
And he said, " I should think this outfit snuggling her little tail up against me here would make a qualification like that pretty damned unnecessary, but, if you are goin' to be hard-nosed about it..."

But I waved it off (see: still trying to be fair, a Good Guy) and said, "Sorry, Hank, sorry." Then, my friend - to show you how grave my affliction was, how deeply rooted the cancer - I went so far as to attempt to repair the rent my tongue had sliced in our tender new fellowship. I said I had been only jesting and that, Sure brother, I understand what you were talking about that music was meant for. I told him that there were, in fact, two recognized schools of Jazz, Black Jazz and White Jazz, and that what he was referring to as Masculine was no doubt the Black Jazz school. I noted that I had played only Brubeck, Giuffre, and Tjader. But, here, listen to some of this for Black Jazz: catch hold of this! 

And I put on what? Of course. John Coltrane. "Africa Brass." I recall no malice aforethought in this choice, but what can I say? Does one ever play Coltrane for the uninitiated without subconsciously hoping for the worst? Anyway, if such was my wish my subconscious must have been greatly pleased, for after a few minutes of that tenor sax ripping away at the privates, Hank reacted according to schedule. "What kind of crap is that?" (Anger, frustration, great gritting of teeth; all the classic responses.) "What kind of godawful manure pile is that?" 
"That? What are you asking? This is Jazz as black as it comes, black balls dragging the ground..."
"yeah, but... wait a minute-" 
"Isn't it so? Listen to it; is that precision la dee da?" 
"I don't know if-"
"But listen; isn't it so?"
"That it has balls? I suppose... yes, but I'm not talk-"

Brother Hank then clamped shut his jaw and remained silent throughout the rest of the side, as I peeped at his stone-smimled obstinance through the fingers of my shading hand. Let me see, Peters! Was it then, during the tense listening, that I renovated my views of vengeance? Let me see? No. No, ah no. I still had not... Oh. It was- no... yes; -admit! admit! -it was, it was then, right after Coltrane, when Viv asked what to her must have been a perfectly innocent question, just a small-talk question to ease the strain. Yes; directly after... "Where did you get the record, Lee?" was the best the girl could do. Just a question to ease the strain. Perfectly innocent on her part. For if it had not been so innocent could I have answered with such little thought to what I was saying? "My mother gave it to me, Viv. My mother always-" With such very little though that I did not realize I had made the blunder in his presence until he said, "Sure," until he said, "Sure, sure as God's green apples I mighta known. Sure I mighta known because it is just exactly the sorta dismal manure she'd go for, isn't it? Sure listen there - it is just the sorta manure Mother would-"

But I'd best be on with it before it gets too late and too sleepy and too high. I'd like to do the complete scene for you because I know you would appreciate the nuances, the vicious undertones, the pastels of hostility, but I'm -whup, wheel, whoop- getting too far out to give these subtleties the attention they deserve.

So, anyway. All right. There I am with Hank hassling me about my Mother. My mellow benevolence is shattered. The cold bitter light of reason is beginning to peep through. The truce is obviously over. Time to think again of the battle. I devise a plan to capture my intended weapon and immediately set about my campaign...

"Well Hank," I remark sneeringly, "there are quite a number of people well versed in music who might disagree with your evaluation of current Jazz artists. So couldn't it be possible that you are being a bit, shall we say bull-headed? narrow-minded?"
The victim blinks, surprised by Little Brother's testy tone. Could Little Brother be spoiling for a fat lip maybe? "Yeah..." he says slowly, "I suppose." I cut him off, going blithefully on...
"On the other hand narrow-minded may be a dishonest label. It may imply a specific not present. Anyway, that's not the point. We were talking about balls, were we not? Balls standing - for the sake of argument - for manliness, strength, intestinal fortitude, etc. Well, brother, do you think that just because a man has enough brains to play more than bam bam bam bam - along with three blues chords and a half-dozen notes - do you think this makes it impossible for him to also have balls? Or does the presence of one eliminate the possibility of the other?"
"Hold on." The victim sniffs, he squints. "Now wait." Perhaps like an animal he can sense the presence of a trap. But what he cannot sense is that the trap is set in reverse. To catch the trapper. 
"Look at it this way," I continue, and begin offering newer, nastier arguments, "or what about this," I press on, "and will you at least consider this," I demand, parlaying one cutting point after another as I being to put on the pressure. Not openly provoking hostility, not so Viv will recognize it, you see, but skillfully, shrewdly, with innuendoes and references to bygone events meaningful only to Hank and Myself. 

And so fourth and so on with fists doubled and eyes red and I've got him. "Let me play it over Hank, then maybe you'll..."
"You put that goddam thing on again and I'll so help me Christ-"
Shouting, standing up. Watch, Brother Hank is finally showing through. Its Brother Hank skinned out of his tinfoil wrapper. Watch Viv, look how he shouts at poor Lee when we argue. Look how he pulls rank of muscle. 
"-what can you do about it?"
See how unjust, Viv? Yet see how Lee tries to be fair though Hank grows anger. Like a grade-school bully shouting. Okay! It comes right down to it maybe I don't have a right! Watch: He is bigger, tough, watch him Viv, because bub, and if you don't like it know what to do about it!
Hank stalks outside, victorious adamant (trapped) Lee stands ashamed beaten (cunning) Viv watches (nibbling) at the miserable vanquished wretch, twice miserable for he was vanquished without a battle. Coward! Weakling! Loser! (fox...)
"I'm sorry, Lee. Hank... gets going like that sometimes when he drinks. I should have taken him up to bed earlier. But he seemed in such a good mood."
"No, Viv. He was right. He was perfectly right in everything he said." 
"Oh he was not!"
"Yes. He was right and proved it. Not about the music. Thats not important. But about... what he said."
"Oh Lee, he doesn't really think that."
Thinks it or not, it's true." Look Viv, look at Lee needing so much. See how he is so small in the world. "Its true."
"It's not, Lee. Believe me, You aren't... oh, if someone could convince you-"
"On our date tomorrow. If its on again?"
"There never was any date. I just-"
"I thought so..."
"Now do't act like that, please Lee..."
"How should I act? First you say-"
"All right. Tomorrow" See his face, Viv? "If you think you need to..." See how much he needs? "I just wish I knew more, understood why you two..." There's a lot you don't know about him, Viv. That makes him even smaller. You don't know all his shame, you don't even begin to know. His shame is strangling him. 
No. nobody's that ashamed. 
Yes! you don't know. You just see the surface shame. Right now there is a second layer ashamed of he first, ashamed of being so weak as to use the shame, ashamed of his need to use the shame. And all his anger comes of it, his cleverness spawned of it, his hate... ah, his hate... like years ago? Hating? As he watched brother Hank? He watched, you know, so many times more than his hate needed... The first time he looked and it was hate and the second time it was shame for though hate made him big enough to see what he had seen for the first time seeing the second time could not add more to hate for there was no more to be hated to seen than the first time and less to see the third time and less each time but hate no longer needed it. By the third time Shame needed it. Weakness needed it. Perversion needed it. And hate was stretched to cover everything. Need Shame Weakness all boiling under that lid I am smothering of that lid hate and see I must must I must-

Drums drum drum are death drums voo drums doo drums kha-a-a-a leading a rattling dance of skeletons though steamy green saxophones, though the screeching jungle. Gruesome, stark - he's right - godawful. And he is right, it is the very sort of manure Mother wold buy. He is right and cursed right and damn him for it damn him to everlasting hell!
Drums drums sucking drums ooze of mud, parched and moaning stones in sun, something swoops to scream at you with a crass beak boned like razor kha-a-a... and that's Coltrane, and that's Truth... and that's true that that was mother and this is me and Hank's right and damn him for it damn him damn him damn...
dum... dum... dum dum EEKha-a-a-a there is blackness in his playing, blackness slashed apart with red. There is bleak and sense-less pain. Warped and torn and gha-a-agasping lovely and yes also also ingle, grotesque, but then he makes it beautiful by convincing us it's true. Gawking mad and horrible, black apart with red, but that's the real face of it. And beauty must be make from what is really must be must be made. 

Black crows. Black crows. Over the cornfield So what they play. So What is the same I know the piece I got it now. Listen to them. Grim missionaries of So What! Three chocolate-coated vacuums calling So What! 

All a drag man, all a hassle man, all too much not enough something else nothing at all So What! 
All three ask it together then each at a time, when all together again. SO WHAT? SO SO SO WHAT? so so so what? All together, then the trumpet, then the tenor then the alto, then all together again SOOOOOO what? 
All three vacuums, transparent lips to the glass brass bells of three brass horns, sicking in at the tree brass bells, fingering reverse indrawn music of despair, playing pictures on the desert SO what? Tossed hot chance of skeleton dice over dunes sifting rust... burnt land, burnt sky, burnt black moon... burnt cities wind scattering hot memo papers no one to read them SOOO what? In houses sundered with big look and WHOO what?... burn if don't shame empty up lay empty hot give stay SO loose what? Look where is go is empty to so empty hot to frozen what and who

The pen reaches to bottom of the page, but he doesn't open the notebook for more paper. He sits, staring at the little hourglass-shaped patch of light cast onto his wall though a crack in his lampshade, very still, only his finger moving as he taps out slow rhythms on the paper. He sits until his eyes begin to water, then he gathers up the scattered pages of his writing and tears them into stamp-sized pieces, working on each with bemused interest until he has a lapful of confetti. He throws the torn paper from his window into the October breeze and returns to bed. He falls asleep watching the little fragment of light vibrate across his wall, thinking how much more efficient it would be filling an hourglass with photons instead of those unruly grains of sand. 


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