Tom Wolfe's rigorous journalistic approach, combined with his masterful exploration of a stream-of-consciousness narrative marks "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" as one of the most effective and compelling investigations into the psychedelic experience of the 1960s. Wolfe's uncompromising and relentless investigation provides a solid understanding and background for "The Electric Kool Aid Test." However, it is his effective use of imagery and description that brings the characters and events of the book to life. Wolfe's lush imagery and narrative have led critic Brian Abel Ragen to compare "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" to a picturesque novel. Certainly, Ragen's argument is valid, and it is this very picturesque quality, in combination with Wolfe's journalistic approach that makes "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" both an informative and compelling read.
The "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" is a non-fiction account of the life of novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. Wolfe's book follows Kesey's life from his beginnings as a promising middle-class athlete and academic. Kelsey was voted the boy most likely to succeed, and went on to Stanford University on a creative writing scholarship. As such, he was an unlikely person to eventually become one of the most notorious figures in the psychedelic world.
At Stanford, Kesey became involved with the "hippie movement" at Penny Lane. Wolfe chronicles Kesey's involvement with notable 1960s figures like Neal Cassady, Larry McMurtry and Jerry Garcia. Wolfe follows Kesey in the time after Kesey published "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1962. Kesey and his followers moved to the woods in California using royalties from the book.
Kesey then lead a group of psychedelic sympathizers across the United States on a 1939 International Harvester bus. They intended to visit the New York World Fair for the release of Kesey's novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. Wolfe describes the bizarre world of the pranksters, including notable figures like Mountain Girl, Babbs, The Hermit, and Timothy Leary. Wolfe's book describes the bizarre world of the Merry Pranksters, from the free sex, acid-laced Kool Aid, arrests and faked deaths, to the seemingly unlikely alliance of the Merry Prankster's with the Hell's Angels. Wolfe recounts the Prankster's conversion of a huge anti-Vietnam rally to an acid-laced party.
Coming back from the trip, the Prankster's stay at Kesey's Oregon farm where they hold group acid tests that are open to the public. They use special lighting, and music of the Grateful Dead (then called the warlocks). Kesey is arrested for drug possession, and he hides in Mexico as a fugitive. He and the Prankster's return to San Francisco, and find a culture that is much more open and accepting of acid. The book end at Winterland stadium, as the group states what is to be the largest acid test. Ultimately, the effort fails, and Kesey loses many of his followers as they drift off, confused, into the night.
Wolfe's writing style is one of the most powerful and effective aspects of "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test." Wolfe approaches "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" with the authority, tenacity, and insightfulness of a journalist. Wolfe literally conducted thousands of interviews in his research for this book. Even in the most bizarre and trying of circumstances Wolfe maintains his journalistic need to document and research. In describing his surreal and frantic encounter with Kesey in jail, Wolfe notes "I take out a notebook and start asking him -- anything. There had been a piece in the paper about his saying it was time for the psychedelic movement to go "beyond acid," so I asked him about that. Then I started scribbling like mad, in shorthand, in the notebook" (7).
Wolfe also meticulously gathers detailed accounts from Pranksters and participants of the acid-tests. He painstakingly follows Kesey and his crew of pranksters through their variety of experiences and experimentations. He is careful to reveal the individualistic and accepting nature of the Pranksters: "Everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there's not going to be anything to apologize about. What we are, we're going to wail with on this whole trip" (65). Wolfe's journalistic rigor lasts to the very end of the book, as he chronicles Kesey's loss of control during the "graduation" in the giant Winterland stadium. Wolfe unabashedly describes how Kesey's movement abandons him, leaving him to conduct the show in a white satin cape and leotard.
Wolfe's style of writing in "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" exquisitely captures the stream-of-consciousness psychedelic narrative of his subjects. His successful attempts to deliver stream-of-consciousness thought include an ample use of ellipses (...) and run on sentences.
His descriptions of the world are seen through the acid-induced reality of the Merry Pranksters. In describing sunset, Wolfe notes "Dusk! Huge stripes of Day-Glo green and orange ran up the soaring redwoods and gleamed out at dusk as if Nature had said at last, Aw freak it, and had freaked out" (124).
Often, Wolfe's descriptions are so steeped in hallucinogenic imagery that they are almost incomprehensible: "there was lightening everywhere and I pointed to the sky and lightening flashed and all of a sudden I had a second skin, of lightening, electricity, like a suit of electricity, and I knew it was in us to be superheroes and that we could become superheroes or nothing" (27). While such descriptions may be nonsensical and confusing, they showcase Wolfe's mastery at depicting the psychedelic reality and experiences of the Merry Pranksters and the 1960s.
Wolfe's dialogue is consistently both flowing and realistic, and it clearly reveals the realities of the hallucinogenic indulgence in an insightful and understanding manner. Wolfe is never judgmental, and reveals a humanity and realness in the stoned-out-hippies that a lesser writer could never have managed. As such, both the internal and external dialogue of the characters equally complex, obscure, and intelligent: "We are all of us doomed to spend our lives watching a movie of our lives -- we are always acting on what has just finished happening...The present we know is only a movie of the past, and we will never really be able to control the present through ordinary means" (129).
Interestingly, the lush imagery and stream of consciousness narrative of Wolfe's work has led Brian Abel Ragen to compare "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test" to a picturesque novel. Certainly, Wolfe's descriptions of the Merry Prankster's conjure up a variety of stunning and picturesque images. Wolfe's descriptions of the hallucinogenic experience often hinge on vivid and unforgettable imagery and description: "But these are words, man! And you couldn't put it into words. The White Smocks liked to put it into words, like hallucination and dissociative phenomena. They could understand the visual skyrockets. Give them a good case of an ashtray turning into a Venus flytrap or eyelid movies of crystal cathedrals, and they could groove on that..." (40).
The greatest strength of Wolfe's book is his uncanny ability to blend the rigors of journalistic fact and description with a stream-of-consciousness narrative that is essential to a book outlining the psychedelic experience of the 1960s. Throughout the book, Wolfe's writing style switches from purely psychedelic and hallucinogenic in describing the psychedelic experiences of the San Francisco acid tests and the Grateful Dead, to a slightly more somber tone in describing antiwar protests, and a more "just the facts" approach in describing Kesey's earlier years. He consistently maintains the ability to reflect not only the facts and reality of his subjects, but also the ability to personalize and humanize the situations and people that he investigates.
While Wolfe's competent writing style clearly carries the book, the compelling nature of the subject matter itself plays an important role in the success of "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test." Matthew Rick notes in…