Wednesday, September 16, 2009

the best book about where i'm from

"And for another thing, there was nothing, not a thing! about the country that made a man feel Big and Important. If anything it made a man feel dwarfed…Important? Why, there was something about the whole blessed country that made a soul feel whipped before he got started…The flora and fauna grew or died, flourished or failed, in complete disregard for man and his aims. A Man Can Make His Mark, did they tell me? Lies, lies. Before God I tell you: a man might struggle and labor his livelong life and make no mark!"
--Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey
the best book ever about the oregon coast range is without a doubt sometimes a great notion. it's not the best book ever. in fact, i'm not entirely sure it's even a great book, or even successful in what it's trying to do. Kesey's best, by far, was one flew over the cuckoo's nest. that is a gem of a book: succinct, powerful, unforgettable. SAGN, on the other hand, wanders too long, uses a shifting narrator perspective that is insightful at its best and distracting and confusing at its worst, and is so verbose and wordy that many don't stick with it. one of the main characters is not even all that likable.
"For what profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun if the trees and the brush and the moss strive everlastingly to take it back? Strive everlastingly until a soul felt that the town was only a sort of prison cell with green prison walls of brush and vine and he had to labor everlastingly, day in and day out, just to hang onto whatever pitiful profit he might have made, labor everlastingly day in and day out just to hang onto a floor of mud and a ceiling of clouds so low sometimes he felt he must stoop…Floor and ceiling and a green prison wall of trees."
but there's no better book about the oregon coast range. i've never read any prose that can capture better the suffocating feeling of the heavy grey skies, the rain, the enormous trees; the stifling, small-town interconnected community; the pride of woods workers; the incredible richness of the fauna that covers everything.

"For this land was permeated with dying; this bounteous land, where plants grew overnight, where Jonas had watched a mushroom push from the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of a hat – this bounteous land was saturated with moist and terrible dying. Saturated and overflowing! The feeling haunted Jonas’s days and tortured his sleep. O, Jesus, light of life, fill the darkness. He was being smothered. He was being drowned. He felt he might awake some foggy morn with moss across his eyes and one of those hellish toadstools sprouting in the mist from his own carcass."
that's exactly how i felt growing up. feel that everyday and maybe, just maybe, you wind up thinking that place matters. it's the only place where i feel utterly, truly, at home and like i belong.
in addition to being the best book to capture the feeling of the coast range, kesey's book is all about place. he is obviously a person for whom place matters. the main oregon characters - hank & henry - are inseparable from the forest environment. they have lived and worked in the woods their entire lives. furthermore, thier relationship with the place - the human community as well as the environment - was partly in response to thier ancestor jonas's hatred and disconnect with the place.

so, it's got place, and more specifically, my place. no wonder it's one i turn to almost every year. when the rains start and the geese start honking overhead i know it's time to loose myself once again in the battles of hank, henry, the union and wakonda pacific...

Photo from eyeliam, flikr creative commons, of the poster used in a portland stage version of SAGN.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible book. I've read it during some of my most difficult times just to give myself a chance to find a sense of home. Thanks for the reminder.