At least part of it was the way it was handed to me - furtively - by a friend in seventh grade: "This one's really good..." he said. "There's a part where a guy cuts his own balls off." Obviously there was more to it than that, but for 12 year-old boys, violence ranked pretty high when comparing literature - second only to sex. Still, the way he said it, and the cagey way he handled the book - like contraband - made me think there was something special about "Cuckoo's Nest," and I was not disappointed. Later on I'd see it taught in high school and college classes, and let's face it, as required reading - something handed to you by the authorities... it loses some of the magic.
On some levels, it's a very simple book: easy, funny dialogue, lots of action and interesting, but not-too-complex characters... there's a little bit of sex and a whole lot of hallucination and insanity. Perfect reading for two reasonably intelligent 12 year olds... On the other hand, having spent most of my adult life as a vagabond and activist, I'm willing to admit I may have read it when I was a bit too impressionable. (And Googling the the name of the guy who gave it to me finds that he became a professional gambler...)
Still, I don't think "Cuckoo's Nest" changed the course of my life so much as prepared me a bit more for what would happen along the way. Or at least be able to view it more romantically. Institutions like high school and college had their share of bureaucrats and Big Nurses, and I did my best to give them hell, but they were nothing compared to the "Real World."
Kids today... you never had it so good. You think it's tough watching the planet and all hope for civilization slowly crumble away because of ignorance and corporate greed? That's nothing. During the Reagan years we had to wait for it to go all at once in a blinding flash... just because a handful of senile old fools thought they could win a nuclear war. Admit it, compared to that, destroying the world through climate change seems downright sensible.
Unfortunately the novel, as well as the feeling of being the only sane person in a madhouse, haven't lost much relevance through the years, as much as I wish they would. (Remember what it was like trying to explain that Iraq didn't attack us on 9/11?) And even though it was written in 1962, the villains of Cuckoo's Nest - the doctors, nurses and bureaucrats - haven't gone away in the slightest. If anything, the machines of the combine are stronger than ever.
The heroes though - the Chiefs and McMurphys - it seems like they're nowhere to be found these days, except in the pages of that book. Even the patients, broken and tragic as they were, seem comic and well-adjusted - even jolly - compared to the kinds of insanity that lurks the streets (and boardrooms) today.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had a big impact on the psychiatric profession, particularly in the use of lobotomy and habitual electro-shock treatments. Not many novels can claim that kind of real world impact. My first diary here at Kos was about helping an old friend get released from a mental institution in Portland (which is where the novel takes place) and what a terrible mistake that turned out to be. When it comes to choosing sides between a friend and an institution I'd like to think I'd still choose the friend, but nevertheless, if I hadn't helped him out then he might still be alive today. (Despite having him re-institutionalized, he got himself out and drank himself to death over the course of the next few months.) Although Cuckoo's Nest was no doubt part of my romantic but mistaken decision to spring him the first time, it also helped create the changes at hospitals that made my decision such a mistake.
It's funny though, the kinds of visions the narrator, Chief Broom had - all the wires and tubes and rust that he felt lurking inside the walls - that's what it was like being with my friend. His mind and body had become so fused and corrupted with solitude and alcohol that it was like being in the presence of an old, dying machine, and you could practically hear his synapses firing when he tried to speak.
Rather than being absorbed into the machine, I'm convinced my friend lost his mind from exactly the opposite - remaining alone and detached from society for too long. Sometimes reality will outdo even the best of fictions, and frankly, the way he died made self-castration seem almost pleasant.