Sometimes A Great Notion

In 1992, Robert Stone gave a reading with Ken Kesey at the 92nd Street Y that I attended with my friend Robert Bingham. Stone read a passage from his new novel at the time, Outerbridge Reach. Browne, his protagonist, who is sailing around the world solo, has gone for a swim in the middle of the ocean. The boat is not anchored, but there is a blue-shell2rope attached to it. Browne swims in the water while holding the rope, being towed by the drifting boat, aware that if he lets go of the rope and it moves beyond his reach, he will die in the water. He lets go of the rope. He swims beside it for a moment, then grabs it. Then he lets go of the rope again. It starts to move out of his reach. He grabs it. This flirtation continues for a while. Finally, Browne gets back in the boat.

Stone then read another passage, in which Browne comes ashore in the middle of nowhere and discovers a burnt-out shack, carbon black, on which strange graffiti has been scrawled. He sees a stick covered in white flaking paint on the ground, and, deciding to make a mark, he writes a phrase. I don’t recall the exact words, just that I found them a bit sentimental. Stone, however, was moved. His voice became gravelly with emotion, and his face flushed red. I was surprised by this, and then embarrassed, both by the nakedness of the line that the character scrawls, its near cheesiness, and the nakedness of Stone’s emotion about it. I thought that he might weep.

After Stone came Kesey. He didn’t read from a book. He talked, chatted, tossed a ball into the audience for some literary shamanistic purpose, and generally clowned it up. The Y was packed that night, as it often is, but the audience be truewas comprised of many people who did not look like the usual Y attendees—hippies, or ex-hippies, dressed up for the occasion.

After the reading, Stone and Kesey sat at a table in the lobby in order to sign books. A couple hundred old hippies in feathers and tie-dyed T-shirts, holding copies of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion, or Prankster marginalia, made a single-file line snaking toward Kesey. Stone had barely any line.

Thinking about the reading at the Y this week after hearing of Stone’s death, it occurred to me that I should look up what, exactly, he had read in Outerbridge Reach that got him so emotional—what it was that Browne had scrawled onto the shack with his white stick. Looking in my copy of the book, I found this: “Be True to the Dreams of Your Youth.”

—Thomas Beller

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When I Worked

March 2015

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