|Jack Nicholson famously depicted Randle Patrick McMurphy in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest|
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)
by Ken Kesey
The success of the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Jack Nicholson doing an unforgettable star-turn as Randle Patrick McMurphy, has eclipsed the success of the novel. That's a shame, because the novel is a real hum dinger, and only 310 pages. The movie was released in 1975, directed by Milos Forman, and it likely cemented the story of Cuckoo's Nest as a narrative cemented deep inside our collective American psyche.
Unlike Sometimes a Great Notion, with a plot centered on the travails of a gyppo family loggers in rural Oregon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has a story that could be set anywhere in America in the early 60's. The novel was shaped by Kesey's experience working the night shift of the mental hospital in Menlo Park, California- which is in the vicinity of Stanford University. Kesey wasn't the first writer to make hay out of an experience working in a mental hospital- see Samuel Beckett and Murphy, but the sensibility of McMurphy presages the anti-authoritrian counter culture of the 1960's, and in fact, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was one of the touchstone books of that period.
Nurse Ratched, with her insane obsession with control over her inmates, stands in for the larger conspiracy of the government and big business against the individual. In the book, the narrator, the Chief, as he's called, describes this combination of forces as "the Combine." One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest might have been the first novel to distill this hypothesis that all the forces in society stood arrayed against the free man.