Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range...come look... Thus opens Ken Kesey's sprawling, sweaty, rain soaked, whiskey-drenched, riffing, beautifully flawed, epic, Sometimes a Great Notion, a book that clearcuts H.L. Davis' 1936 Honey in the Horn, our state's only Pulitzer winning novel, as the Oregon work of fiction for all time. The great wild man is gone, and a few weeks after his death and the guarded obituaries that tiptoed around his prodigious drug use and disappeared writing talent, I found myself drinking cheap beer and admiring the vintage commercial fishing photos in a Newport waterfront tavern, the Bayhaven. It just happened to be the very tavern that played the part of The Snag saloon in the 1971 movie version of Sometimes a Great Notion. A quick glance around the interior and you know why the producers dug the mise-en-scene: beaten-to-a-pulp hardwood floors, fog light lanterns, sea captain sculptures, deer trophies, a property seizure receipt from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a mounted octopus, an ancient outboard motor, plaques commemorating fishermen perished on the water, and lots of wool-wearing, bearded beer drinkers at 1:00 p.m. on a weekday. In the Bayhaven, surely one of the few authentic (and last) fisherman drinking holes on the Oregon Coast, there's also another piece of memorabilia that occasionally hangs on the wall or in the front window. It is a framed poster of stills from Sometimes a Great Notion, a film shot in and around Newport, including most famously, the big house on the Siletz River in Kernville. In the Bayhaven, on a whim, I asked the bartender if she had seen the movie. I asked a few other patrons the same question. They had. As a matter of fact, several had also read the novel, which in a recent Penguin edition bulges at over 600 pages with varied, abrupt narrators flying through the chapters. We talked about the book, about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and the movie adaptations, one a classic, the other not. At the age of 46 Paul Newman produced, directed and starred in Sometimes a Great Notion. Despite his celebrity, the picture tanked. Later it was retitled Never Give an Inch for television and I haven't seen it on cable in years. It's a bad movie made even worse by a terribly dubbed audio track and murky cinematography. It's most glaring fault however, is that it doesn't come close to evoking a sense of special geographic place that is the genius of Kesey's novel. He nailed what rain does to us here on the coast better than any writer before or since--it cannot be topped. Today the movie is worth watching to see how the Oregon Department of Forestry regulated logging in the pre-Oregon Forest Practices Act era (and probably fantasizes about doing so today). There was no regulation. In one scene, loggers fell 200-plus year old trees right into an estuary, tearing salmon habitat to hell. Times have thankfully changed, but maybe not so much in the Bayhaven, which opened in 1908. It looks old, feels old, old people talk about old things. It felt good to be in there on a cold November day as it poured. As Kesey wrote in the book, "It has commenced. He hears the rain on the roof, like soft nails being driven into the rotten wood. It has commenced, all right. And it'll go on now for six months." It makes you do intense things. Meriwether Lewis knew--he almost went insane wintering at Fort Clatsop near Astoria. I know. So does my wife. Check out Oregon Coast taverns on a winter weekday evening. Look at the Stamper family in the novel. Thank god for literature and taverns. Speaking of taverns, while in the Bayhaven, on the subject of Sometimes a Great Notion, a 50-something aged man shared with me what has to be the best drinking hole story on the Oregon Coast for all time. It also suggests the influence the novel had on the actor who played the lead in the film. So the story goes, 31 years ago, with the cast and crew of the movie staying in Newport, the man drank in a dive tavern in the rugged timber town of Toledo, eight miles east from the ocean into the Coast Range.
Enter Paul Newman carrying a chainsaw, exactly like the hard-ass logger character, Hank Stamper, he happened to be portraying. "He was wearing a fake chest." "A fake chest?" I asked. The man explained that Newman obviously was wearing padding under his work shirt, evidently to appear bulkier. Wordless, alone, Newman, whom according to various biographies I consulted to unsuccessfully confirm this story, has at times drank to considerable excess, fired up the chainsaw. He sawed the legs off a pool table. It crashed to the floor. Stunned logging locals looked on. They did nothing. Newman left, perhaps later sending a check to cover the damage. Perhaps not. "Paul Newman! You've got to be kidding?" I screamed. "He was drunk, " the man said. Or maybe a movie shoot on the wet Oregon Coast just fucked him up. Or maybe he was going total method technique. Rest in peace Mr. Kesey. I believe your raw Oregon spirit still lives on the Oregon Coast. It once captured Paul Newman. It thrives yet in the Bayhaven.
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