The story is narrated by Chief Bromden, the longest-serving inmate at the Oregon State Hospital. He entered the hospital after suffering a breakdown related to his tribe's loss of ancestral fishing rights so the federal government could build The Dalles dam on the Columbia River. Chief hallucinates that the lights, air-conditioning, and other modern technology are living, hostile entities, so he's experienced both over-medication and electroshock therapy in his years at the hospital. Chief pretends to be deaf and so he is able to overhear conversations of the medical staff as he goes about his cleaning duties each day. He lives with the other "acutes" and "chronics" in a relatively open ward run by the feared and hated Big Nurse, Nurse Ratched. Acutes are patients that may someday recover enough to leave the hospital, chronics are likely to die there. None escape the dubious ministrations of Ratched.
Into this drab existence comes one Randle Patrick McMurphy, a hyperactive, extroverted gambler and conman who has gamed the system to avoid the last few months at a prison work farm by claiming psychosis. His free spirit poses an immediate threat to Nurse Ratched, and the novel becomes a test of wills (and so much more). McMurphy transforms the men of Big Nurse's ward, and is ultimately defeated by her. But not really ...
The narrator Mark Hammer reads the book, and is pretty darn amazing. He's got a deep, raspy tired voice that captures long-time inmate Chief Bromden perfectly. It sounds almost as if the Chief is just getting used to speaking again after years of muteness, while his bone-deep sadness is palpable. Hammer creates some other memorable characters as well: I particularly liked the professorial snobbishness of a patient named Harding, the stutterings of young Billy Bibbitt, the weak and clueless Dr. Spivey, and the threatening black aide Williams. He pulls off a Swedish accent for the dirt-phobic fishing-boat captain George Sorenson without caricature. With McMurphy, he's chosen volume and a rapid, twangy bravado as the key characterizations, while he gives Nurse Ratched a subdued prissiness that is deeply frightening when you realize what she's capable of.
Hammer takes his cues from the text (which I always like): When we are first introduced to patient Harding, his "hee hee ... hee hee hee" laugh is described as sounding "like a nail coming out of a plank." Can you hear that annoying screechiness? Hammer is spot on with that ingratiating laugh.
The narrator moves the novel along without feeling hurried; the lengthy passages of the Chief's hallucinations don't drag, while the big scenes -- McMurphy's first big confrontation with Ratched (the punch to break the window was shocking), the exuberant fishing trip off the Oregon coast (a scene I fear won't be in the play), the party with the prostitutes, and the final match between the adversaries -- have an immediacy and energy that keep you right in the story. This book never feels like it's 13 hours long.
I'm kind of excited to see the play, and have now placed the movie on my wish list. I think I'm old enough now to appreciate it. ;-)
How cool is this online "fugitive fact file" from Hennepin County Public Library, which provides the citation for the title rhyme (even though it includes a typo, which I've corrected here):
Wire, briar, limber-lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east, one flew west
One flew over the cuckoo's nest.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Narrated by Mark Hammer
Recorded Books, 1992. 13:15