Sometimes a Great Notion is ambitious but marred. Its title derives from a line in the song “Good Night, Irene”: “Sometimes I get a great notion to jump in the river an’ drown.” The novel chronicles humankind’s relationship with the river—with its beauty and resources, but also with its unpredictability and cruelty as its rising waters sweep away land, homes, and people.
At the beginning of the novel, a critical contract to supply the sawmill of a national logging corporation with cut timber has almost expired, but a union strike keeps the local community from completing the quota and delivering the timber. The Stampers (their motto is Never Give an Inch) defy the union and go ahead with the work. Because of their shortage of manpower, they send for Leland “Lee” Stanford Stamper, Henry Stamper’s younger son and Hank Stamper’s half brother. Lee, a graduate student at Yale University, who has never forgiven his aggressive older brother, Hank, for his sexual liaison with Lee’s mother and for her suicide, returns home to get revenge. A central part of the novel is the competition and conflict between the two brothers. In fact, Kesey told interviewer Gordon Lish that the Stamper brothers sum up two different ways he thinks of himself, the one his homespun, outdoorsman side, the other his more educated, artistic, cynical side. While Hank pushes himself to fill his logging quota and to retain his values and integrity while...
(The entire section is 552 words.)