“Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range … come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River …”
— Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion
I’ve just finished the manuscript of a new novel, Spike. All 142, 843 words of it. For those of you who are not authors, you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that’s a lot. According to one source, “While anything over 40,000 words can fall into the novel category, 50,000 is considered the minimum novel length. Anything over 110,000 words is considered too long for a fiction novel.”
Ah, but I’m not worried. Like Trump’s full-of-himself former Attorney General, Bill Barr, in a recent (and unusual) burst of honesty when describing his former boss’s claim he was cheated out of the 2020 election, I call bullshit.
Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, arguably the greatest work of literary fiction to ever emerge from America’s Pacific Northwest, weighed in at a whopping 265,000 “often elegant, sometimes frustrating” words. That translates into no less than 715 pages.
But I digress, right out of the gate, from the reason I’m penning this post. Now that I’ve finished with Spike (well, at least the first draft and some obviously-needed revisions), I’m tempted to jump straight into my next project, a novel call Dodge. But it occurs to me this may be doing Spike a disservice. I need to step back for a moment, break off from staring at all that writerly tree bark for a bit, take a gander at the forest, and enjoy the view for a change.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to crank out a few blogposts, each of them devoted to a place that plays an important part in the tale of Spike Santee and his search for what makes him tick. Each post will be brief, I promise. Just a few very personal observations based on my own experiences, occasionally referencing those observations to Spike. And in each case, I’ll highlight a writer from each place who matters to me, whose work has had an impact on my own writing.
Which is why I opened this post with a quote from Ken Kesey.
The publication in 1962 of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s most famous novel, stunned critics. The subsequent Broadway play did boffo box office, and the movie, starring Jack Nicholson, won a basketful of Oscars. As a personal aside, the film’s co-producer, a young Michael Douglas, borrowed my beloved first car, a ’56 Plymouth Sport Fury, complete with push button transmission, to tool around while shooting scenes in and around Salem with his then-girlfriend, a colleague of mine at the University of Oregon. This fame-drenched fact allowed me to subsequently sell “The Golden Hind” for way more than it was worth — enough to finance my first adventure in Europe.
Sometimes a Great Notion came out two years later. A much more complex work than Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s been described as having “out-Faulknered Faulkner,” a decade before the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s experimental mastedon, Gravity’s Rainbow.
Kesey, then 29, joined a group of pals who called themselves “The Merry Pranksters,” painted the outside of an old school bus to look like the inside a Haight-Ashbury brothel, christened it Further, and set out to test the premise that reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Tom Wolfe (who kindly penned the foreword to a book I planned to publish but let slip through my fingers, In Advance of the Landing — I still have Wolfe’s acceptance letter, literally a work of art) subsequently wrote a blockbuster account of life on the road with the Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book that made Kesey a guru, an icon, a movement — a lightning rod. When this was later pointed out to him, he replied laconically, “Well, I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.”
Kesey was very much a part of the local scene as I was growing up in Eugene. By the time I entered the hallowed halls of South Eugene High School, strategically located a mere hop and a skip from the campus of the University of Oregon, at the time of hotbed of free speech, free love, and (almost) free advice — Kesey taught creative writing there for a while — he had become a local hero. Long since moved on to that big tree farm in the sky, a statue featuring Kesey reading to three kids is strategically placed in the middle of downtown Eugene. Further is now double parked at the Smithsonian Museum.
My Eugene was the perfect place for a boy with a dollop of curiosity about life and the world around him to grow up in. Nature — forests, cliffs, mountains, the watery battering ram of the Pacific, were all at our adventurous beck and call. There was a cultural tension to the town that was exciting, caught somewhere between its logging past, its rapidly eroding present, and its obvious future, fuelled by a combo of a major liberal arts university and the siren song the place sang to the footloose and creative.
Today, it’s safe to say, there are far more joggers than loggers in Eugene, poised to join the likes of London and Paris as the host city for the World Track & Field Championships (when I was a kid, more of us showed up for U of O track meets than football games).
Eugene was my springboard into adulthood, my entreé into the mysteries of the Outside World. The scene in Spike where young Santee, sitting as the summer sun sinks behind the Coast Range heading for a final skinny dip off Florence, stares north up the Willamette Valley and dreams himself away, is more or less pure autobiography.
I have called many places home during the course of my life. You’ll read about some of them in upcoming posts. But Eugene? It’s not a home — it’s Home.
PS: A quick word about Eugene’s step-sister town on the other side of the river, Springfield. Well, I’ll let the picture speak for itself.