I must have picked up, started reading and then put down Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” three or four times before I finally fell headlong into the funny, exhilarating and ultimately tragic story of Randle Patrick McMurphy.
I’m not sure what the initial barrier was, but on a warm night in New York City where I was living in the early 70s, I finally got hooked; and once I did, I couldn’t put Cuckoo’s Nest down. Literally. I read it all night and well into the following morning, sitting in my tiny 2 ½ room walk up on the Upper West Side. It was the summer of Woodstock, and I was lit up with a feeling of empowerment, a conviction that I’d surely be able to live my life free and without constraint. I wanted to defy the combine, to fight against a system that gave us Vietnam and police riots in Chicago. I wanted to be just like…well, McMurphy! Except I wasn’t really like McMurphy; a struggling actor in New York City, my intention of fighting the system gave way to my need to make a living, I was stuck working in one temp job after another, supporting the endless round of auditions that usually led nowhere. McMurphy was larger than life…I couldn’t escape the routine of mine.
I felt similar a similar sense of failure when I went on to pick up Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool Aide Acid Test,” which documented Kesey’s wild and uninhibited adventures with the Merry Pranksters. Truth to tell, the life of the Pranksters scared me a bit. I was too timid to give in to the unpredictable and uncontrollable experiences that dropping acid were sure to trigger.
Still, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and a few years before that “Catch 22” were the most important novels of my formative years. They led me to question authority – even of I didn’t have the courage to defy it; they gave me a glimpse into a world where people lived large emotional lives; and they made me feel less alone in my desire to be the hero of my own story.
I love the story told in Cuckoo’s Nest to this day. I love McMurphy’s brash willingness to be truly himself.
I can’t wait to sit down in the Alliance Theatre and watch the story unfold again, to cheer Randle on and to quietly hiss every time Nurse Ratched makes an entrance on the stage.