Posts Tagged ‘FSG


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.


Baseball, Ballrooms and Bedlam: The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a CityThe Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler

Back in 1977, New York was a joke. A cruel one maybe, but to most of America it was a joke: the biggest city in America was on the verge of bankruptcy and crime was going out of control. It’s a gritty, tense world Jonathan Mahler evokes in The Bronx is Burning, his look at that memorable New York summer, both in the street and on the field at Yankee Stadium.

In many ways, the Yankees and the city reflected each other. Both had long legacies of greatness but had largely fallen apart in recent years. The Yankees had just returned to the postseason, but were quickly swept by the Cincinnati Reds; New York had just hosted the Democratic National Convention, but was largely ignored by President Jimmy Carter.

But the Yankees had something new to count on: slugger Reggie Jackson, who had just been signed with them in the offseason. He brought a lot of power to the lineup, but he brought a lot of drama, too. A strange mix of braggadocio and insecurity, in his late-70s prime, Jackson was as likely to destroy a pitch as he was throw his teammates or manager under the bus. Just a few weeks into the season, he gave an infamous interview with a reporter from Sport Magazine, claiming he was the straw that stirs the drink and team captain Thurman Munson could only stir it bad.

At the same time, the city was in disarray. Faced with bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame laid off hundreds of public workers. Police officers responded with protests and flyers trying to scare off tourists (“Welcome to fear city,” read one). There were tensions between the working class as lower rungs of society; urban renewal had led to white flight and abandoned businesses. Soon everything would explode.

Mahler’s book captures this divisive moment in the city’s history in vivid detail. He weaves back and forth between the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, a heated mayoral election, civil unrest and baseball effortlessly, often finding connections between them. The world of Studio 54 wasn’t an alien one to Reggie Jackson, but neither were impoverished areas like Bushwick or the South Bronx.

Indeed, Jackson and his furious relationship with Billy Martin largely drives the action in The Bronx… with their fights and backstabbing quickly becoming baseball lore. Mahler recounts slight after slight, quote after quote, the tension rising to a boiling point one afternoon in Boston when they came to blows in the dugout in front a national TV audience.

Soon, Mahler recounts the city’s boiling point: the blackout of 1977. He devotes one section of the book to this event, some 25 hours that changed the city’s direction. After it, the mayoral campaign took a nasty turn and soon devolved into Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch sniping at each other. After it, it was impossible to ignore the social trends that caused widespread looting and the deteriorating inner city. And after it, the Yankees slowly started turning their season around.

Although this book’s often held up as one the big sports books of the past decade – Grantland mentioned it by name in a story about baseball books a few weeks back – some parts haven’t aged well. For example: Mahler makes a good case for Jackson’s success at the plate, but his heavy reliance on statistics like batting average and RBI reflect a past era of sports writing.

His cultural picture of New York is a little shallow, too. He touches on punk rock only a bit and devotes a few pages to the burgeoning art scene. But seminal artists like Patti Smith and Jean-Michel Basquiat never show up and Mahler genrally seems more interested in describing details of the gay scene (a club with an 18-wheeler set up in it!) than in giving it a wider social context like he does with disco.

But the political sections of his book have aged better: the Post’s heavy focus on Son of Sam prefigures the post 9/11 jingoism of Murdoch’s Fox News by decades and his account of the changing campaigns of Koch and Cuomo is fascinating, if a little short.

I would’ve liked more on how each (not to mention fellow candidate Bella Abzug) saw how the election changed their careers or how the Post kept growing in the years after, but I’m generally satisfied by what’s here.

Rating: 7/10. An enjoyable read, I breezed through this one in a few days. While it’s picture of the city is relatively small, it has a huge scope and attempts to show America’s largest city in a state of flux. As a baseball history, it’s no Summer of 49, but it’ll more than fit the bill for a fun summer read.


Judgement Days: The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor

The Complete StoriesThe Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (Noonday Press)

The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor is a behemoth collection of powerful fiction, equally moving as it is disturbing and a hell of a read.

This is one of those times where I’m at a bit of a loss for words. These stories are powerful: when they hit, they hit you hard. Since I finished reading some of them earlier this summer, I’ve been thinking about them: the grandmother in The Life You Save Might Be Your Own; Tanner in Judgement Day; the Bible salesman in Good Country People. They’re all flawed people, sometimes racist, sometimes corrupt or vain and shallow. They’re southern grotesque, but not in the cartoonish way of Louis Nordan (previously reviewed here). And they all feel more real than anyone in, say, a David Foster Wallace story, where he telegraphs how he wants you to feel about his characters in a way that feels judging and arrogant.

One of my favourites here was The Partridge Festival, where a young man hears about a man who went crazy and shot some people at the town courthouse. He interprets the shooting as the act of a sane individual driven to an extreme by a society that won’t let him be; the shooter had been sent to a mock jail for not buying a button to support the local festival. He goes around town and everyone tells him that the shooter was a weird guy. He thinks they’re all too simple to understand. His well-meaning Aunts set him up with a local girl, he judges her equally harshly until finding out she has the same arrogant attitude. They spend the evening together criticizing the town and decide to visit the shooter. He drives, she brings a copy of a Nietzsche book. And they have their youthful illusions shattered:

…and at that moment he got his wrist free and lunged towards her but both attendants sprang after him instantly. As Mary Elizabeth crouched against Calhoun, the old man jumped nimbly over the sofa and began to speed around the room. The attendants, their arms and legs held wide to catch him, tried to close in on him from either side. They almost had him when he kicked off his shoes and leaped between them onto the table, sending the empty vase shattering to the floor. “Look girl!” he shrilled,  and began to pull the hospital gown over his head.

This one caught me right between the eyes. Its maybe a little more direct than some of her other stories – perhaps that’s why she withdrew it from her second collection of stories – but those two kids have an attitude we still see all the damn time. Most recently, I’ve seen it with terror suspect Jahar Tsarnaev; there’s a group of people online who think he’s either innocent or at least wish to excuse his acts of terrorism. But sometimes people who do truly terrible things are terrible people. It’s an ugly truth, but life isn’t as clean cut as some people would like.

The idea of coming to grips with how things are is here often; it reminded me a lot of the epiphanies one sees in James Joyce‘s fiction (who gets namedropped by some of the more pretentious characters in these stories). People, pushed to a point of nearly breaking, have a moment of revelation, it’s impact often echoing long after the story is over.

That’s not the only story I enjoyed in this collection. Personal favourites include Parker’s Back, Judgment Day, The Enduring Chill and The Life You Save. But there are stories here which aren’t up to the same high standard. After all, this is a collection of everything she wrote; the earlier stories (The Barber, which kind of reads like a rough draft of The Partridge Festival) sometimes feel like the works of someone who’s knows what they’re going after but aren’t there yet. That’s probably the reason she didn’t include them in either of the collections she put together in her lifetime.

It’s a huge collection, encompassing the two collections of her short fiction and parts of her novels Wise Blood, plus a handful of other stories. Just because of this sheer bulk, I’m not sure it’s an ideal starting place – personally, I’d recommend Everything That Rises Must Converge – but if you’re at all interested in her stories, this is where to go. Recommended. Just make sure you take the time to read each story on it’s own.