By Richard Rayner

"He had the build of a plunging halfback, with big shoulders and a neck like the stump of a Douglas fir," wrote Malcolm Cowley, who taught Ken Kesey in a writing class at Stanford in 1960. "Chapters of a novel were read aloud in a writing class and they aroused a mixed but generally admiring response." The novel was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Penguin Classics Deluxe: 320 pp., $15), and among the other students were Peter S. Beagle, Wendell Berry, Ernest Gaines and Larry McMurtry. That must have been some writing class. "Cuckoo's Nest" was published in 1962, to a response that was more than somewhat "generally admiring" -- the book was turned into a Broadway play and, later, the Milos Forman movie with Jack Nicholson.

A much bigger, and greater, novel, "Sometimes a Great Notion" (Penguin: 736 pp.,$16), followed with amazing speed, in 1964. Kesey must have thought he could fly. Or perhaps he already sensed that he'd never do anything so good again. His friend, the novelist Robert Stone, reckons that Kesey was a natural performer, always requiring an audience, with little liking for the writer's lonely life. For whatever reason, Kesey became a test case in the nature of American celebrity. He got hold of an old bus, painted it in Day-Glo colors, gathered some friends, and set off on the cross-country road trip that was recorded by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Kesey became famous for being an acid-head, for being jailed, for being Kesey and, though he later published more books, was never quite the same writer again. He passed into part of that doomed legend, the Sixties. He died, much mourned, in 2001, and the odd and wonderful thing is, those first two novels not only hold up -- they seem better than ever.

The journals that Kesey kept while composing those books detail how serious he was about the craft of writing, and how good. He poured every chaotic impulse and vision he had into "Cuckoo's Nest" and "Notion" but found ways to keep the basic storylines clear and simple. In "Cuckoo's Nest," the "wild goose" renegade Randle P. McMurphy rolls into the mental ward like Shane coming to town and is at once set in opposition to Big Nurse Ratched who, if not exactly the villain of the fable, is certainly the representative of society's cruel and oppressive forces. In "Notion," our first clue about the logger Hank Stamper is given by an arm that Stamper has affixed to a pole in his yard, a dead man's arm with defiant middle finger sticking upward. Both books are set in Kesey's native Oregon, and both have the same blunt plot motor that served Ayn Rand in "The Fountainhead": the guy who just refuses to give in.

Rand uses the device to tell her favored story about the triumph of the individual will, while Kesey takes it in a diametrically opposed direction. The resistance of McMurphy and Hank Stamper is glorious but destroys them and brings death to others. Thus a dilemma is raised: Does America want brute individualism or the comfort and suffocation of social order? Kesey's life tells us which side he came down on, but in his fiction he didn't answer the question; instead, he explored its ambiguities in dramatic and shattering ways.

Kesey's subject was "the great wild American hollow, which is scarier than hell." Each of these books tackles the theme, though in tones that are very different, largely because of technique. "Cuckoo's Nest" is narrated solely by Chief Bromden, a schizophrenic Indian who pretends to be deaf and dumb. That's his way of surviving, and the Chief tells his story in a style that is everyday yet hallucinated, flashing with electricity and dangerous hot metal. Here he describes Big Nurse: "She's swelling up, swells till her back's splitting out the white uniform and she's let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. . . . She blows up bigger and bigger, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load."

The Chief is the enlightened witness who both brings us the awful news and is liberated by it, as novelist Chuck Palahniuk notes in his foreword to this new edition featuring jacket and flap art by graphic novelist Joe Sacco. But the Chief is paranoid too, and his voice tingles with dread of "the Combine," the malign and skewed democracy for which Big Nurse is a ruthless enforcer. "I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot, tend her network with mechanical insect skill, know every second which wire runs where and what current to send up to get the results she wants," says the Chief, and we shiver with his fear.

"Notion," on the other hand, sweeps across history and is told through an intricate chain of changing points of view. To compensate, the prose itself always sits closer to what it describes. The superb opening pages establish a Western landscape that dwarfs and intimidates the men and woman that live within it. A river doesn't serve the loggers, but threatens to devour them. The forests tower with sun-blotting trees and drip with fog. So powerful and effective is the writing that these pages seem moist as you turn them. "This bounteous land, where plants grew overnight, where Jonas had watched a mushroom push through the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of a hat -- this bounteous land was saturated with moist and terrible dying," Kesey writes. Stamper and his half-brother Lee match wills and egos over Hank's wife, Viv. They both lose, but the river rolls on, eating away at everything.

It's staggering that Kesey published these two novels before he was 30. They're extraordinary in their drive, their capaciousness, their poetry, their human sympathy, and their laughter, which is always joined, in a Whitmaneseque way, by their feeling for death. Excesses may sometimes abound, but here are two American masterpieces. Dive in. Or, as Viv says to the crew-cut union organizer in "Notion": "Come on, it's fun. Look."


Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly.



The Short List: Also New in Paperback


"The Gift" by Lewis Hyde (Vintage)

A 25th anniversary edition of Lewis Hyde's brilliant and unclassifiable exploration of the nature, and value, of creativity. "All cultures and all artists have felt the tension between gift exchange and the market, between the self-forgetfulness of art and the self-aggrandizement of the merchant, and how that tension is to be resolved has been a subject of debate since before Aristotle," Hyde writes. He muses on where creativity comes from, and why it might be worth more than commerce tends to think. Which makes this book sound heavier than it is: "The Gift" is an inspiring dance around the subject of what the artist can expect.


"Black Hole" by Charles Burns (Pantheon)