The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
by Tom Wolfe
Farrar Straus Giroux, pp. 432
It’s 1964. Ken Kesey had just gotten out of his six-month jail sentence for possession charges. What’s the next best thing to do with your life after getting out of jail? Well, according to Kesey, it is buying an old school bus in California, painting it all sorts of crazy psychedelic colors and driving around the country spreading word of this wonderful new drug called acid, or LSD.
The bus, dubbed “Further,” was driven by none other than Neal Cassady. Cassady was the main protagonist in Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On The Road” where he took on the pseudonym Dean Moriarty. He holds up to his reputation of fast driving and womanizing that Kerouac set.
The bus contains many cabinets, nooks, and crannies all filled with grass, uppers and downers, but most importantly is the fridge filled with laced Kool-Aid and orange juice. Wolfe documents through the eyes of the Pranksters what it’s like to be on acid. The liminality of it is great for the reader because we see both good trips and bad trips. Nothing seems to be worse than a man losing his mind in the midst of an LSD trip.
In the novel, you meet with many famous counterculture figures. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Tim Leary are amongst the various figures met with zeal throughout the story. This book is a great way to set a context of 60’s events. By meeting with these already historic characters, the reader can get a full sense of the counterculture scene of the 60’s. It’s like reading a textbook where the characters take acid and have a great time. That’s a textbook I would surely read.
Wolfe recounts the events with a new style of writing (new for 1968 anyways) that the great Dr. Gonzo (Hunter S. Thompson, author of the drug-fuelled adventure of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas) called “New Journalism”. New Journalism was the wave of journalistic semi-fictional writing that took hold in the early 60’s throughout the 70’s that employed unconventional ways to record an event, where participation was required.
Wolfe also uses spontaneous prose inspired by Kerouac and other beat writers of the 50’s. Random breaks of poetic verse and lyric support Wolfe’s own personal style that help convey the chaos of the whole cross-country trip (think Naked Lunch). He uses unconventional word choice, so keep a dictionary near by.
All in all, a good book. Recommend this for anyone who likes acid, has done acid, or is at all interested in acid.