When I first moved to Oregon, I asked around about local literature and everyone’s first response was invariably Geek Love. If a novel has any relation to the place where it comes from, Katherine Dunn’s story of a family of circus freaks is pure Portland. Bizarre, irreverent and bewitching, Geek Love keeps it weird.
But Portland doesn’t define Oregon. There’s impenetrable forest, ravenous rivers and mighty mountain beyond the strange city limits and it stretches all the way to the wild Pacific Ocean.
Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range… come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River…
The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting… forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittin bark and silver spruce – the the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir – the actual river falls five hundred feet… and look: opens out upon the fields.
The opening lines of Sometimes a Great Notion pulled me into its pages like ivy curling round a tree stump. Ken Kesey’s words – his story and his characters – wrapped around and through me, utterly compelling and savage and sorrowful.
Sometimes a Great Notion is about a logging family on the Oregon coast who refuse to heed a union strike against a lumber company and continue cutting down trees, incensing the rest of the town. It’s peculiar to this State but it’s also about America and freedom and a man’s right to do whatever he goddamn pleases. It’s about memory and the interpretation of past events. It’s about festering resentment and loyalty and revenge. It’s about finding some space to be in the world.
It was a long read at over seven hundred pages. Fragmented and meandering, with sudden shifts and slow slides in narrating voices, it wasn’t always easy. Nor was it laborious or wearisome. Rather, I felt like I was on an epic but necessary journey into the heart of a very complex, divisive and painful point in Oregon’s history. It often made me gasp and cry and hang my head and sigh.
I loved it.
If I did such things as top tens then this novel would be towering somewhere in that list.