In 1959, a newcomer to San Francisco with a few unpublished novels in his suitcase found a job working the night shift at a mental hospital. He got to know the patients there, including World War II veterans suffering from what was then called combat fatigue — now PTSD — and a Native American man struggling with debilitating schizophrenia. During his time on the ward, Ken Kesey was also introduced to new pharmaceutical therapies, especially LSD, then legal and plentiful, which took a place in his life and legend forever.

His distillation of that experience is the now classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1962. The title is derived from an old British nursery rhyme about migrating geese, the freest of birds. Kesey’s story revolves around an unlikely hero, Randle McMurphy, who declared himself the freest of all men, who, like the cuckoo, is smart and cunning. But McMurphy isn’t free, and he’s made a strategic mistake: To get out of an Oregon prison, he feigns insanity and ends up in a mental hospital that’s a gateway to a thousand private hells. One is electroshock therapy, then the current – excuse me – way to make inmates docile. “Anoint my head with conductant,” McMurphy jokes while still able, adding, “Do I get a crown of thorns?”

Observing all this is a Native American man named Chief Broom, close to his birth name Bromden, but embodies the fact that he’s constantly sweeping the hall floor allows him to see everything without being seen himself, though he is towering in height. Bromden’s other subject of study is the head nurse, Mildred Ratched, “a true angel of grace” who is small and quiet, though mean as a cobra. No sooner has McMurphy landed on the ward than he and Sister Ratched set out on a course of mutual destruction, with McMurphy, a natural-born anarchist, determined to keep the orderly, tightly-regulated world she made so harsh within the tightly locked doors of the ward. to create.

There was no better fictional talisman for the emerging 1960s than McMurphy’s rebellion against authority in all its forms, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became a favorite reading on campuses across the country. My copy, purchased in 1972, is the 19th paperback; there have been dozens more since then. The 1975 Miloš Forman film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson as a letter-perfect McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as a hard-nosed, creepy nurse Ratched, propelled sales of Kesey’s book to new heights, and it never sold out.

By then, Kesey had published a book that was even better than… cuckoo’s nestnamely Sometimes a great idea, one of the truly great American novels. (By the way, McMurphy wears white whale boxers as a subtle tribute to another great book.) Kesey’s writing would grow after that, well, a hit or miss, but two masterpieces are two more than most writers make. Sixty years later, with madness and rebellion all around us, his debut novel remains an essential, timeless work of American literature.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.