The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
By Tom Wolfe
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
I had forgotten (successfully) how pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, self-absorbed, and self-righteous hippies were. Maybe, as a full-fledged member of the If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It Generation, I was subconsciously embarrassed by my own pretentiousness, pseudo-intellectuality, self-absorption, and self-righteousness in those days.
But I recently restored my suppressed memory by hooking down Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, first published in 1968 (the year I got tear-gassed in Berkeley by Governor Reagan’s state militia). The book I had avoided for thirty years despite glowing recommendations by assorted fellow travelers gave me a flashback that was, well, a bummer. But my reaction only testifies to the power of a work considered by many a nonfiction classic.
In 1966 Wolfe, who later penned The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, set out to capture in print the essence of the acid-dropping Californian hippie cult led by Ken Kesey, the Typhoid Mary of LSD and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. To do so Wolfe employed the techniques of “new journalism” that he, along with Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, and others were then developing to produce nonfiction works that read like novels.
Like a novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test uses scene-by-scene construction, records full dialogue, provides the thoughts and emotions of the subjects, and describes in detail their behavior and possessions.
And, like a novel, it puts you there, in the midst of Kesey and his Merry Pranksters: in their Day-Glo bus careening across America, at their acid-laced parties, in their drug-addled minds. Instead of telling you what happened via objective narrative like most journalists, Wolfe shows you, infesting you with all the atmospheric and sensual details. And it works, at least in my case, only too well.
Through a rich, slangy, neologistic stream of consciousness, Wolfe compellingly portrays the insanity, duplicity (“Never trust a Prankster”), and manic, existential muddle of Prankster communal life: The glee in being weird and offensive, the pride in being “cosmic” and unintelligible; the cult-like worship of the charismatic Kesey, and the inevitable crackups, to which the remaining Pranksters remain strikingly callous.
But Wolfe also ably renders the captivating transcendence of the hippie experience: the high energy, high spirits, humor, and creativity—which, for the Merry Pranksters, owed so much to Kesey’s wit and inventiveness. For a brief moment it made me long for the days when you could be openly outrageous, say most anything you damned well pleased to anyone, and live free and wild. Maybe even for more than a brief moment.
It made me wish I had been there when some shortsighted Berkeley anti-war-rally organizer invited the celebrated Kesey to speak. But instead of mimicking the militant tone of previous speakers, Kesey, in orange coat and Day-Glo World War I helmet, came to the microphone with a harmonica. Accompanied by the Pranksters’ makeshift band, he played “Home on the Range,” likened the previous speaker to Mussolini, and chided the 20,000 ralliers:
“Me! Me! Me!…That’s the cry of the ego and the cry of this rally!…Me! Me! Me!…Yep, you’re playing their game.”
Ah, the good old days.
Wolfe then goes on to encapsulate the scene and capture its spirit in his conversational prose:
“—and the crowd starts going into a slump. It’s as if the rally, the whole day, has been one long careful inflation of a helium balloon, preparing to take off—and suddenly somebody has pulled a plug. It’s not what [Kesey] is saying, either. It’s the sound and the freaking sight and that goddamn mournful harmonica and that stupid Chinese music by the freaks standing up behind him. It’s the only thing the martial spirit can’t stand—a put-on, a prank, a shuck, a goose in the anus.”
No, not traditional, objective reportage, but something more, something that cuts to the heart of the moment and tells a deeper truth.
Wolfe nonetheless manages to do all this full-immersion, colloquial reporting without taking sides, without preaching, advocating, or admonishing. Along with the pandemonium and celebrity and wild joyousness of the Merry Pranksters, he shows you the psychotic reactions, the Hell’s Angels gang bangs, and the betrayals. And you believe every word of it, even when his minutely detailed reporting and at times overly rich prose become tedious.
But, as in fiction, the details are everything. And the only way to get them right is to do your homework, which Wolfe did in spades. In addition to on-the-scene reporting and the usual documentary research, he conducted interviews with Kesey, various Pranksters, and others on the scene, such as writers Larry McMurtry, Hunter Thompson, and Robert Stone. He delved into Prankster archives—films, tapes, letters, diaries, photos—and into Prankster minds.
In an author’s note at the book’s end, Wolfe writes: “I have tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to re-create the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it. I don’t think their adventure can be understood without that.”
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Wolfe succeeds in re-creating the megalomaniacal atmosphere of a movement that profoundly changed our culture. In it he reveals the roots of the mass drug-taking and mass permissiveness that linger yet today.
Kesey’s own story in the interim seems a sad microcosm of our culture: After his LSD experiences he never wrote another work that approached the verve and sweep of his first two novels. From his website, key-z.com, he now sells Prankster memorabilia, films, and T-shirts reading “Never Trust a Prankster.”