Set in a mental hospital in the 50s/60s(?) this story is told by "Chief" Bromden, a long-term schizophrenic patient. The inmates of the institution appear resigned to their situation, having had any spark extinguished by the oppressive environment and by the fearful Nurse Ratched. But one day a new patient appears: Randall McMurphy, who has been transferred from a prison after being diagnosed psychopathic (perhaps deliberately, because he sees the hospital as a soft option).
Rather than settling and becoming as docile as the others, McMurphy generally stokes up trouble, encouraging the other patients to stand up for themselves and complaining about what he sees as petty rules and restrictions. This puts him on a direct collision course with Nurse Ratched, and a battle of wills ensues, the outcome of which is never really in doubt.
Having Bromden narrate the story means that we also get a a glimpse into the world of a schizophrenic (assuming Kesey knows what he's talking about): he is convinced that there is a grand conspiracy at work manipulating his world, and we live with him through nightmarish scenes of what's going on in the basement when everyone is meant to be asleep.
The main theme of the book is of how psychiatric "treatments" are used not so much as a way of healing or curing, but as a means to control and subdue undesireable behaviour in mentally ill people. Ratched has most of the population on drugs, and there is the ever-present threat of electric-shock therapy and lobotomy for those who persist in making trouble. In McMurphy's case, it's hard to know whether he himself is "ill" or "insane", or whether it makes any sense to use these labels anyway.
I found the book harder going than I'd expected. Not sure why: the writing was good, and the story was interesting; it just didn't grip me. Perhaps that's because it's not as shocking now as it might have been in the '60s when it was originally published. And I suppose I knew what the end was going to be.
Worth reading once.
Completed : 19-Oct-2004 (audiobook)