Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells of the probably-not-cuckoo Randle Patrick McMurphy, a jokester, card player, womanizer, fighter, criminal, and Korea vet. He ends up in a mental ward after faking a fight to get off a work farm. At the ward, he lives among the Acutes, his new pals, and the Chronics and below Disturbed, home to the worst-off patients.
The story is narrated by Chief Bromden, a Chronic with a foggy and hallucinating head who is often able to secure his wits, including to fake deafness, allowing him in on privy conversations.
McMurphy is always on the hunt to liven up his stay by pushing and breaking boundaries, but in his way is the Big Nurse, Miss Ratchet, an authoritarian who tries to secure order through medication, threat of more severe treatments, and pitting the patients against one another.
Ratchet can’t at first figure out how to navigate McMurphy’s boisterousness or to break up his influence over the Acutes, sometimes taking her frustrations out on her orderlies. But she does end up securing some victories, especially toward the end of McMurphy’s stay, when him starting a fight with the orderlies opens himself and Bromden to Disturbed-style treatments.
At the end of the book, amid climatic events, the ward sees a mass exodus of patients and its second and third patient deaths.
Kesey has a voice — and speak-like grammar sans commas — all his own. The book, which I’d consider racially inappropriate, was made into the 1975 movie starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.
Here are 10 of my favorite excerpts from the book. Hope they bring a smile to your brain like they did for me.
1. He stands looking at us, rocking back in his boots, and he laughs and laughs. He laces his fingers over his belly without taking his thumbs out of his pockets. I see how big and beat up his hands are. Everybody on the ward, patients, staff, and all, is stunned dumb by him and his laughing. There’s no move to stop him, no move to say anything. He laughs till he’s finished for a time, and he walks on into the day room. Even when he isn’t laughing, that laughing sound hovers around him, the way the sound hovers around a big bell just quit ringing—it’s in his eyes, in the way he smiles and swaggers, in the way he talks.
“My name is McMurphy, buddies, R. P. McMurphy, and I’m a gambling fool.”
2. “I mean that overzealousness, Doc, have you ever been troubled by it?”
The doctor wipes his eyes. “No, Mr. McMurphy, I’ll admit I haven’t. I am interested, however, that the doctor at the work farm added this statement: ‘Don’t overlook the possibility that this man might be feigning psychosis to escape the drudgery of the work farm.’” He looks up at McMurphy. “And what about that, “Mr. Murphy?”
“Doctor”—he stands up to his full height, wrinkles his forehead, and holds out both arms, open and honest to all the wide world—“do I look like a sane man?”
3. “Look at me now,” he tells the guys and lifts a glass to the light, “getting my first glass of orange juice in six months. Hooee, that’s good. I ask you, what did I get for breakfast at that work farm? What was I served? Well, I can describe what it looked like, but I sure couldn’t hang a name on it; morning noon and night it was burnt black and had potatoes in it and looked like roofing glue. I know one thing; it wasn’t orange juice. Look at me now: bacon, toast, butter, eggs—coffee the little honey in the kitchen even asks me if I like it black or white thank you—and a great! big! cold glass of orange juice. Why, you couldn’t pay me to leave this place!”
4. It’s fall coming, I kept thinking, fall coming; just like that was the strangest thing ever happened. Fall. Right outside here it was spring a while back, then it was summer, and now it’s fall—that’s sure a curious idea.
5. He was an old pro-footballer with cleat marks in his forehead, and every so often when he was off his ward a signal would click back of his eyes and his lips’d go to spitting numbers and he’d drop to all fours in a line stance and cut loose on some strolling nurse, drive a shoulder in her kidney just in time to let the halfback shoot past through the hole behind him. That’s why he was up on Disturbed.
6. She asks for a cigarette, and Harding dips his fingers in his pocket again and it’s empty. “We’ve been rationed,” he says, folding his thin shoulders forward like he was trying to hide the half-smoked cigarette he was holding, “to one pack a day. That doesn’t seem to leave a man any margin for chivalry, Vera my dearest.”
“Oh Dale, you never do have enough, do you?”
7. “Man, what they got going on in there?” McMurphy asks Harding.
“In there? Why, that’s right, isn’t it? You haven’t had the pleasure. Pity. An experience no human should be without.” Harding laces his fingers behind his neck and leans back to look at the door. “That’s the Shock Shop I was telling you about some time back, my friend, the EST, Electro-Shock Therapy. Those fortunate souls in there are being given a free trip to the moon. No, on second thought, it isn’t completely free. You pay for the service with brain cells instead of money, and everyone has simply billions of brain cells on deposit. You won’t miss a few.”
He frowns at the one lone man left on the bench. “Not a very large clientele today, it seems, nothing like the crowds of yesteryear. But then, c’est la vie, fads come and go. And I’m afraid we are witnessing the sunset of EST. Our dear head nurse is one of the few with the heart to stand up for a grand old Faulknerian tradition in the treatment of the rejects of sanity: Brain Burning.”
8. “Let’s be honest and give this man his due instead of secretly criticizing his capitalistic talent. What’s wrong with him making a little profit? We’ve all certainly got our money’s worth every time he fleeced us, haven’t we? He’s a shrewd character with an eye out for a quick dollar. He doesn’t make any pretense about his motives, does he? Why should we? He has a healthy and honest attitude about his chicanery, and I’m all for him, just as I’m for the dear old capitalistic system of free individual enterprise, comrades, for him and his downright bullheaded gall and the American flag, bless it, and the Lincoln Memorial and the whole bit. Remember the Maine, P. T. Barnum and the Fourth of July. I feel compelled to defend my friend’s honor as a good old red, white, and blue hundred-per-cent American con man. Good guy, my foot. McMurphy would be embarrassed to absolute tears if he were aware of some of the simon-pure motives people had been claiming were behind some of his dealings. He would take it as a direct effrontery to his craft.”
9. After Grandma’s funeral me and Papa and Uncle Running-and-Jumping Wolf dug her up. Mama wouldn’t go with us; she never heard of such a thing. Hanging a corpse in a tree! It’s enough to make a person sick.
Uncle R & J Wolf and Papa spent twenty days in the drunk tank at The Dalles jail, playing rummy, for Violation of the Dead.
But she’s our goddanged mother!
It doesn’t make the slightest difference, boys. You shoulda left her buried. I don’t know when you blamed Indians will learn. Now, where is she? you’d better tell.
Ah go fuck yourself, paleface, Uncle R & J said, rolling himself a cigarette. I’ll never tell.
High high high in the hills, high in a pine tree bed, she’s tracing the wind with that old hand, counting the clouds with that old chant: . . . three geese in a flock . . .
10. Down the hall we heard glass crash and Harding came back with a double handful of pills; he sprinkled them over Sefelt and the woman like he was crumbling clods into a grave. He raised his eyes toward the ceiling.
“Most merciful God, accept these two poor sinners into your arms. And keep the door ajar for the coming of the rest of us, because you are witnessing the end, the absolute, irrevocable, fantastic end. I’ve finally realized what is happening. It is our last fling. We are doomed henceforth. Must screw our courage to the sticking point and face up to our impending fate. We shall be all of us shot at dawn. One hundred cc’s apiece. Miss Ratched shall line us all against the wall, where we’ll face the terrible maw of a muzzle-loading shotgun which she has loaded with Miltowns! Thorazines! Libriums! Stelazines! And with a wave of her sword, blooie! Tranquilize all of us completely out of existence.”
He sagged against the wall and slid to the floor, pills hopping out of his hands in all directions like red and green and orange bugs. “Amen,” he said and closed his eyes.