On The Bus with Ken and Company: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

A manic, relentless drive through the psychedelic underground c. 1966, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests is a wild read, although it’s unquestionably a product of it’s time.

Generally, Wolfe follows Ken Kesey and his entourage of proto-hippies, The Merry Pranksters. They roam up and down the California coast, discovering LSD and other drugs and expanding their inner selves, so to speak.

Generally, their adventures fall into one of two categories: they’re either trying to freak out squares or trying to have a good time. One usually comes with the other. The pranksters paint a school bus into wild psychedelic patterns and drive it across the US (and, in a weird twist, up to Calgary for the Stampede). They bang atonally on electric instruments, yell and shout into a maze of microphones and tape machines, paint their faces and wear wild clothing.

But it’s not all fun and games: the book sometimes shows the lives getting trashed in this chaos. Take Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, who shattered under heavy DMT/LSD use and had to return to New York to clean up and dry out. Or Stark Naked, a female Prankster who ended up institutionalized (and promptly vanishes from the narrative). Who’d have thought taking acid could have a negative impact on fragile minds?

Not most of them, one assumes. Kesey and the Pranksters take countless hits of acid, smoke endless blunts. They’re high all the time and ramble on and on, expanding the kind of logic I used to hear a lot in my high school years. It reminded me a bit of the dialogue in The Dharma Bums: like, why can’t we just understand each other, man?

Still, there’s something else going on here. When Wolfe quotes from authors like Joachim Wach, he implies he was aware of how powerful this scene was becoming. Could he have anticipated it’d still be unfolding today? Hard to tell, although I can hear echoes of Kesey’s more lucid, provoking moments even now in Canada’s marijuana debate. It’s fascinating to have someone so close to the principals and these events as they unfolded: even now, as names like Neal Cassady are surrounded by legend, Wolfe brings them back to something approximating reality.

But what reality is a good question. Wolfe’s prose frequently goes off the rails into bursts of phrases, punctuation or verse. It’s a more manic version of the style he used for features like The Last American Hero or books like The Right Stuff. Sometimes he pulls it off, giving the narrative a sense of energy (or at least a second cousin to Tristram Shandy’s flights of fancy). Other times, it feels like a dated gimmick, like a backwards guitar solo on a long-forgotten psychedelic record.

And speaking of music, this book would have a killer soundtrack: the Tests were often accompanied by The Grateful Dead and bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish or Big Brother and the Holding Company pop and out of the story. And a trip to a Beatles gig is a key part of the story, too. I would’ve like more on the music side of things – these bands, especially the Dead, basically invented acid rock – but it would’ve distracted from the angle Wolfe took here.

Perhaps I’m being a bit sentimental here: this is the kind of thing I’d have lapped up in high school, back when I used to read and reread Hunter Thompson on what seemed like a weekly basis. And even now, I didn’t mind this book. While it occasionally grated on me, I never felt like throwing it across the room.

Rating: 6/10. When I was younger, I would’ve sympathized with Kesey. Now I feel closer to Wolfe, who was obviously charmed by him, but not enough to forget his objectivity. In so many words: Wolfe was certainly around the bus, but never actually on the thing.


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