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Monday, September 19, 2016

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968) by Tom Wolfe

The Furthur bus that Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters rode across the United States
Book Review
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
by Tom Wolfe

   The "new journalism" of the 1960's involved non-fiction, long form journalism written from the perspective of a participant.  In that way, it resembled the canons of fiction, particularly those of the novel, and thus "new journalism" was the origin of the larger field of "creative non fiction," where writers of non-fiction do their best to emulate the stylistic concerns of novelists.   The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is one of the first AND the most popular example of this genre, and it is also, in my mind, the single best book about the origins of the west-coast hippie movement of the 1960's.

  It's also a book best read in the early stages of high school, which is when I read it for the first time.  This book, alongside On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, were the four titles that defined the counter-culture of the mid 20th century.  It's worth pointing out that only The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was actually published during the 1960's.  It's actually possible to read all four books in chronological order and maintain a narrative consistency.

  On the Road features thinly veiled versions of William Burroughs and Neal Cassady.  Naked Lunch was written by Burroughs during the time portrayed in On the Road.  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid test has Neal Cassady as a major characters, and relies on work done by Hunter S. Thompson.  Feart and Loathing in Las Vegas is essentially the death of all the dreams put forward in the previous three books.

  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test tells the tale of Ken Kesey, successful novelist, and his Merry Pranksters, a group of young people (and an older Neal Cassady) who saw themselves as apostles for a religion centered around intake of drugs (Weed and LSD in particular) and a loosely defined spiritualism which incorporated lessons learned from earlier 20th century authors like Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley.  Those looking for the positives and negatives of this fussy approach to awakening the spirit need go no further than the figure of Kesey himself, who was clearly the Christ figure (and financial sponsor) of this particular movement.

  Kesey was from rural Oregon, son of a well-off builder, who had made his way south after graduating from college to take an MFA (I think) in creative writing at Stanford.  There, he took a succession of odd jobs to pay his way, one of which involved being a test subject for hallucinogenic drugs.  He was smitten by LSD and sought to spread awareness by example.  Eventually, he and the pranksters came up with the ideas of "acid tests" where revelers would take acid and groove to the music of the band that would eventually be called The Grateful Dead.

   As much as my adolescent self was enthralled, as an adult I now see the deep flaws in their vision, not the least of which was Kesey's cowardly flight from prosecution into the wilds of Mexico.  He eventually makes his peace with the law by renouncing acid experimentation and retiring from public life after serving a short jail sentence, revealing himself to be more bourgeois than revolutionary.


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