In 1959, Ken Kesey, then a creative writing student at Stanford University, volunteered to act as a guinea pig in a series of medical trials, partly sponsored by the CIA, into the effects of psychoactive drugs like LSD and mescaline. The experiences he had during these trials fed into the novel he was writing and the result was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Set in a mental hospital in Oregon, the book is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, a giant American Indian patient there. It tells the story of what happens too the other inmates of the hospital when the drugged routine of their lives is disrupted by the arrivale of Randle McMurphy, a larger-than-life prankster who challenges all the rules and assumptions of the establishment.
Apart from his fiction—other novels include Sometimes a Great Nation and Sailor Song—Kesey is also known as the leader of the "Merry Pranksters," the group of proto-hippies who, in the summer of 1964, drove across America in a psychedelically painted school bus, startling the natives of the small towns en route with their appearance and antics. Throughout his life—and in all his writings—Kesey's aim was to startle. Just as Randle McMurphy strove to awaken his fellow inmates to the world outside the hospitcal, his creator wanted to stimulate people into the new wasy of looking at life and its potential.
Review reprinted from 100 Must Read Life-Changing Books, by Nick Rennison (A&C Black Books, ISBN 9780713688726). Available in bookstores everywhere.