The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
I have very little sense of pop culture history before the eighties, and that’s only because I Love the 80s was split up into ten episodes devoted to each year and I watched that in order. This is a constant source of amusement and disappointment to my roommate—I mean, I thought Pat Benatar wrote “Helter Skelter”, for Pete’s sake. But in the digital age, there’s no excuse for ignorance, so I decided to educate myself. A little research dug up The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, neatly combining an introduction to Tom Wolfe with an introduction to the counterculture of the 1960s.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is, essentially, a biography of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, over the course of his years with the Merry Pranksters, his group of hippie followers, including the origins of the Merry Pranksters, the famous bus ride of Further, the school bus turned Day-Glo hippie transportation unit and sound system, the Acid Tests (featuring the Grateful Dead), and Kesey’s attempt to dodge the law by fleeing to Mexico. Too young to be a Beatnik, to old to be a hippie, in his own words, Kesey nevertheless bridges these two generations of counterculture, and Tom Wolfe is along on the ride of his life.
On the back of the copy of this novel I rented from the library, a blurb from The Village Voice proclaims that Wolfe has “the edge on the non-fiction novel”. At first, I rolled my eyes at such a phrase—I mean, the redundancy of “literary fiction” is one thing, but this?—but after finishing this, it’s a bit easier to see where Truman Capote was coming from on the concept of the non-fiction novel. The phrase “creative nonfiction” is much more apt, especially sitting in a room in a time where the memoir has appeared to have devoured the nonfiction market. The tropes and storytelling techniques of fiction are used here in a way that wouldn’t be in a traditional work of journalism, such as Wolfe’s copious attempts to mimic the effects of an acid trip in prose and his confidence in relating the inner workings of his subjects. While the book opens with Wolfe, looking every inch the square compared to his new hippie companions, riding in the back of a truck to meet Kesey after the man gets out of jail, Wolfe soon melts into the background and his subjects take charge. It seems effortless, but in the author’s note, Wolfe carefully notes that “All the events, details and dialogue I have recorded are either what i saw and heard myself or were told to me by people who were there themselves or were recorded on tapes or film or in writing” (415). What an astonishing research process.
In the same author’s note, Wolfe states that he has “tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to re-create the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it” (415). Despite the crisp narrative arc of the rise and fall of the Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test communicates their world so effectively it’s more of an… well, it’s more of an experience, to borrow the Pranksters’ language, so Wolfe succeeds there, even if it can sometimes be hard to push through. I was actually waiting in line at Target the other day, my mind wandering, and I felt a little sad that I wouldn’t be able to get home and revisit the world of the Merry Pranksters.
Which isn’t to say that I would like to actually visit the world of the Merry Pranksters; it’s just to say that Wolfe makes it so vivid and clear that even I, the Millenial queen of the quadrilaterals, can understand where these people are coming from. It’s a world where anything is possible, the boundaries of the human psyche itself are being pushed, and the urge to live in the now and connect with the universe and other people is utmost. (It’s that last one that still resonates, being so utterly terrifying for me.) At least, that’s the ideal. In practice, the idea of not having a leader falls apart pretty much instantaneously, and Wolfe documents how Kesey is able to manipulate his followers. And I was particularly struck with the movement’s treatment of black people; previously considered the arbiters of cool by the Beat Generation (from whence Kesey came), they end up symbolically replaced by the Hell’s Angels. And for all the, shall we say, antiquated language Wolfe utilizes, he also points out that the reason that there are few black people in the movement might be due to the fact that it’s easy to romanticize poverty when you’re a middle-class white kid rebelling against your parents.
After this, I think my next step in learning about the sixties is watching the documentary Magic Trip; Kesey and the Merry Pranksters recorded their first bus trip extensively, but the footage hadn’t been utilized until this film.
Bottom line: Tom Wolfe brings the sixties and Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to startlingly vivid life in The Electric Kool-Aid Test; forty-four years later, even this Millenial queen of the quadrilaterals can understand where these people are coming from, even as I critique them. It’s less a book and more of an experience, to co-opt some language. Worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 1968. New York: Bantam Books, 1999. Print.