The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
Originally published in 1968 ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ by Tom Wolfe is both a remarkable work of journalism and a historical-literary classic. It follows the exploits of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they trip their way round the US in the 1960s, turning on the masses and experimenting in group consciousness; all under the influence of LSD and a multimedia of sensual bombardment.
As a work of psychedelic literature it is a brilliant exploration into the social effects of LSD, at a time when the psy-movement itself was producing very little in the way of literature. As Wolfe notes in his introduction to the New Journalism anthology: “I wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and then waited for the novels that I was sure would come pouring out of the psychedelic experience… but they never came forth… I learned later that publishers had been waiting too.”
Unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who posited himself as the framework for his texts, Tom Wolfe, although present in places, tends less toward his own psychology and more to the mise–en–scène of events and to the minds of those people with whom he travels and interviews. The upshot of this is a very literary undertaking that focuses a lot on atmosphere and feeling; rather than only objective fact recording.
The gathering and the social movement of the Merry Pranksters between 1964 – 66 makes up the bulk of the novel. Using a variety of literary techniques, like multi-form content, slipping between poetry, reviews and plot, flashbacks and a changing point-of-view, Wolfe creates a scintillating narrative that bubbles with experiential fervour.
The central character is Ken Kesey, already famous as the author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, Wolfe briefly explores his introduction to LSD, his residence at Perry Lane, with wife Faye and his three children and his consequential rise into the ranks of psychedelic folklore. His relationship with the Merry Pranksters is a central axiom in the text.
Wolfe beautifully constructs the air of reverence on the return of Kesey, to the Pranksters, from the hands of the law: “Through the sheet of sunlight at the doorway and down the incline into the crazy gloom comes a panel truck and in the front seat is Kesey. The Chief; out on bail. I half expect the whole random carnival to well up into a fluorescent yahoo of incalculably insane proportions. In fact, everybody is quiet. It is all cool.”
The welling up of the psychedelic movement as a social phenomena in the Sixties is often categorized as a twin-headed beast. Kesey and the Pranksters on the one hand, Leary et al on the other. Wolfe explores the differences in mentality and practice of these two groups throughout the novel; not least in the chapter The Crypt Trip when the Pranksters went to visit the ‘High Priest’ at Millbrook.
According to Wolfe, Kesey had no problem with what Leary was doing but he had his own plans. Kesey is affirming himself and says: “Don’t stop being a pioneer and come back here and help those people through the door. If Leary wants to do that, that’s good, it’s a good thing and somebody should do it. But somebody has to be the pioneer and leave the marks for others to follow.” His intentions, as a social innovator for psychedelics, are clear – arguably it is the rave scene in the late 1980s and early 90s that owe him the greatest debt of gratitude.
Creating a spectacle, or movie, of events was the primary concern of the Pranksters. Not only did they film their travel to the east (there is also constant recourse to Hesse’s Journey to the East) but they turned everywhere they went into living, organic models of their vision. There was no underlying philosophy, no geist of environmentalism or strict Eastern religious doctrine. The name of the game was shared experience:
“A few times Sandy and Kesey and Walker would walk up into the forest with axes and cut some wood for the house-but that wasn’t really the name of it at Kesey’s. Sandy could see Kesey wasn’t primarily an outdoorsman. He wasn’t that crazy about unspoilt Nature. It was more like he had a vision of the forest as a fantastic stage setting…in which everyday would be a happening, an art form…”
The reality of the spectacle, as an outward manifestation of the LSD trip, certainly helped their passage and transformed the spaces through which they travelled. Their famous psychedelic bus – named Furthur – was the very vehicle of their geographical exploration. However, Wolfe explored the mind set of the Pranksters and when the spectacle was turned inwards, the reality warped into something very different:
“On those long stretches of American superhighways between performances the bus was like a pressure cooker, a crucible like one of those chambers in which the early atomic scientists used to compress heavy water, drive the molecules closer and closer together until the very atoms exploded. On the bus all traces of freakiness or competition or bitterness or whatever was intensified.”
The materialization of the psychedelic movement as part of the social becomes increasingly pronounced during the novel. From the individuality, the egoism, of Kesey, to the small group of Pranksters, then further forwards to the meeting with the Hell’s Angels (introduced to Kesey by Hunter S. Thompson) till finally the organization of the Trips Festival.
“The Trips Festival was like the first national convention of the underground movement that had existed in a hush-hush cell-by-cell basis – The press went along with the notion that this had been an LSD experience without the LSD. Nobody in the hip world of San Francisco had any such delusion, and the Haight-Ashbury era began that weekend.”
In the end, as the movement grew beyond the confines of certain individual’s ideals, they were lost in the great social wave of the counterculture. Kesey was eventually, after a fake suicide note and flight to Mexico, busted for several marijuana related offences. The dissipation of the Pranksters coincided with the final rise and death of the counterculture movement. The Acid Test Graduation was a failure; largely due to the successes of earlier tests, which caused the momentum to be sucked into the social – leaderless and divided.
‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ is an adventure in style, in history, in perspective. Whilst it tells only a limited story of the Sixties, it tells of one of the most interesting and influential episodes. Wolfe, by retaining journalistic accuracy and yet exploring literary technique tells the tale in a manner so very suited to the subject. It is atmospheric to the point of re-living the hopes, fears and general complexity of a movement growing into social segregation.