BOOK REVIEW: 'The Storm at the Door': Comparisons to Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Are Inevitable, Albeit Unfair

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Storm at the Door': Comparisons to Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Are Inevitable, Albeit Unfair

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,/ Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock / Three geese in a flock
One flew East / One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest


It's inevitable that Stefan Merrill Block's new novel "The Storm at the Door" (Random House, 368 pages, $25.00) will be compared with Ken Kesey's 1962  "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which was made into a brilliant 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson.

Kesey's novel, narrated by the gigantic but docile half-Native American inmate "Chief" Bromden -- who gives the book its title from a nursery rhyme his grandmother taught him --  focuses on the antics of the rebellious Randle Patrick McMurphy (Nicholson in the movie) who faked insanity to serve out his prison sentence in the hospital. The head administrative nurse, Mildred Ratched,  rules the ward with a mailed fist and with little medical oversight.

Stefan Merrill Block
Stefan Merrill Block

"The Storm at the Door" was inspired by events in the lives Stefan Merrill Block's grandparents, particularly by his grandmother 's committing his grandfather to the famous McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont, Mass., a suburb of Boston. This hospital, where "A Beautiful Mind" mathematician  John Forbes Nash,  a native of Bluefield, West Virginia,  was hospitalized -- along with the distinguished poet Robert Lowell and many other famous people -- is called Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill  in the novel. Perhaps this is a tribute to the lineage of many of its inmates -- including Lowell.

(From Wikipedia: John F. Nash, born June 13, 1928 and still alive at age 83, was admitted to the McLean Hospital in April 1959,  where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The clinical picture is dominated by relatively stable, often paranoid, fixed beliefs that are either false, over-imaginative or unrealistic, usually accompanied by experiences of seemingly real perception of something not actually present — particularly auditory and perceptional disturbances, a lack of motivation for life, and mild clinical depression clinical depression. Upon his release, Nash resigned from MIT, withdrew his pension, and went to Europe, unsuccessfully seeking political asylum in France and East Germany. He tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship. After a problematic stay in Paris and Geneva, he was arrested by the French police and deported back to the United States at the request of the U.S. government.)

Katharine Merrill didn't have much choice with her husband Frederick, after a particularly outrageous incident following a wild cocktail party: it's either prison or a mental institution, much like McMurphy in Kesey's novel, which coincidentally enough was published in 1962, the same year of Frederick's hospitalization at McLean (Mayflower).

"The Storm at the Door" is the love story of Katharine and Frederick Merrill, who met just before Frederick left to fight in World War II. After two decades of an exciting (as in the ancient Chinese curse about living in exciting times) married life, Katharine still holds out the hope that she can return to the first two months of her relationship with Frederick. She has obviously either not read Thomas Wolfe's novel "You Can't Go Home Again" or doesn't think it applies to her situation.

 

For those two months, just before Frederick left to fight as a naval officer  in World War II, Katharine received his total attentiveness, his limitless charms, his astonishing range of intellect and wit.  Over the years, however, as Frederick’s behavior and moods have darkened, Katharine has covered for him, trying to rein in his great manic passions and bridge his deep wells of darkness:  an unending project of keeping up appearances and hoping for the best.  But the project is failing.  Increasingly, Frederick’s erratic behavior, amplified by alcohol, distresses Katharine and their four daughters, and gives his friends and family cause to worry for his sanity.  When, in the summer of 1962, a cocktail party ends with her husband in handcuffs, Katharine makes a fateful decision:  she commits Frederick to Mayflower Home, America’s most revered mental asylum.

There, on the grounds of an opulent hospital populated by great poets, intellectuals and madmen, Frederick tries to transform his incarceration into a creative exercise, to take each meaninglessly passing moment and find the art within it.  But as he lies on his room’s single mattress, Frederick wonders how he ever managed to be all that he once was: a father, a husband, a business executive.  Under the faltering guidance of a self-obsessed psychiatrist, Frederick and his fellow patients must try to navigate their way through a gray-zone of depression, addiction, and insanity.

At the hospital we're presented with the stories of many people, including the psychiatrist in charge, who has demons of his own. I won't go into any more details, because this is a multilayered novel that readers will want to experience in more than one reading.
In a Book Page interview with Alden Mudge, the author explains why he novelized the events of his grandparents, rather than writing a memoir:

 “My grandfather was absent for so much of my mom’s childhood and he died so young that there’s little that factually remains. Basic things that are so telling of a person’s character—the way he held his body, the kinds of conversations that he had, the women he loved—all these things that are so important to understanding a person are gone, so I felt that the only way I could explore this urgent need was through fiction.” (By the way, I recommend Book Page, found at most public libraries in print form and available online at http://bookpage.com. It's an excellent resource for constant readers).

About the Author

Stefan Merrill Block was  born in 1982 and grew up in Texas.  His first novel, The Story of Forgetting, won Best First Fiction at the Rome International Festival of Literature, the 2008 Merck Serono Literature Prize and the 2009 Fiction Award from The Writers’ League of Texas.  The Story of Forgetting was also a finalist for the debut fiction awards from IndieBound, Salon du Livre and The Center for Fiction.   A graduate of Washington University, St. Louis, he lives in Brooklyn. His website: www.stefanmerrillblock.com.

Publisher's website: www.atrandom.com

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