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Book Report: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Kesey’s Bus

Growing up, I remember hearing the term “Writing the Great American Novel” and not quite knowing what it was. I thought that it was a quest to write the best book ever written. But I later learned that The Great American Novel isn’t about writing the best book ever, it’s about creating a book that captures a point in American history so crisply and clearly that you can freeze-dry it, put it in a time capsule, and take it out fifty or a hundred years later to examine.

Many of these books are the classics we read in school like The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye. But something strange happened in the 1960s and 70s. The Great American Novel was replaced by the great American non-fiction book. In his essay Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore, Tom Wolfe writes about how novelists at the time were trying to write “important” and “thoughtful” books that were too removed from real life. This created an opening for Wolfe and his fellow writers to write non-fiction books to fill that void.

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test(1)I thought I’d never get to The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test because I don’t read books, just listen to audiobooks. In a miracle of the audiobook world, Audible recently released the audio of 5 Tom Wolfe books including The Right Stuff, my favorite. is a monumental book of this sort. It’s one of the first books that uses the storytelling skills of the novel, the capturing of the tiny little details to transport the reader directly into the moment. And it has an advantage over novels—it actually happened!

Wolfe writes with such a literary flair and attention to detail that you’re transported into the moment. Like when Richard Alpert,(2)Alpert would later change his name to Baba Ram Dass and wrote the iconic book Be Here Now. one of Timothy Leary’s friends, was teaching a girl about raised consciousness through the example of a baby “blindly” crawling around the room:

He said “Blindly? What do you mean, blindly? That baby is a very sentient creature… That baby sees the world with a completeness that you and I will never know again. His doors of perception have not yet been closed. He still experiences the moment he lives in. The inevitable bullshit hasn’t constipated his cerebral cortex yet. He still sees the world as it really is, while we sit here, left with only a dim historical version of it manufactured for us by words and official bullshit,” and so forth and so on, and Alpert soars in Ouspenskyian(3)Ouspenskyian is a reference to P. D. Ouspensky who taught that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. loop-the-loops for baby while, as far as this girl can make out, baby just bobbles, dribbles, lists and rocks across the floor … But she was learning … that the world is sheerly divided into those who have had the experience and those who have not.

Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

But this isn’t fiction or a poem meant to paint a picture. Kesey’s Merry Pranksters were the proto-hippies, with free love and drugs before we even had the word hippies. They were some of the first people in the country to get their hands on LSD. The book features such characters of American culture as Neal Cassidy, the model for Jack Keruak’s Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and Carolyn Adams, known as Mountain Girl, the future wife of Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead. Gary Trudeau even names his token hippie “Zonker” in his comic Doonesbury after on the pranksters.

He spent a relatively short time with the Merry Pranksters, mainly to capture the tone and feeling of being there. From the way the book is written, you think he was actually on the bus with them the whole time. With such key characters and such attention to detail, you’d think Wolfe must have taken significant license with the truth. But when Kesey was asked about the book, he said:

It’s a good book. Yeah, he’s a—Wolfe’s a genius. He did a lot of that stuff, he was only around three weeks. He picked up that amount of dialogue and verisimilitude without tape recorder, without taking notes to any extent. He just watches very carefully and remembers. And so what he’s coming up with is part of me, but it’s not all of me.(4)There’s a lot that you miss when you boil Kesey down to this god-like leader of the Merry Pranksters. In the interview, Kesey points out that he’s far more patriotic than Wolfe captures. He made the pranksters wear red, white, and blue all the time to show their patriotism. When he first tried LSD he was training from the Olympics as a wrestler, never having tried drugs. He thought he was joining a US Government study to “enter this new spot of space and we wanted someone to go up there to look it over.” It was only 20 years later until he learned that this was a CIA project that wasn’t being done to cure insane people, it was done to make people insane and make them easier to interrogate.

Ken Kesey on Fresh Air. Ken Kesey Discusses His Life and Career at 6:00.

The book captures the small moments of the time in such a lasting and ubiquitous way. Wolfe talks about “The Beautiful People Letter” that “attuned” kids of the time, and later virtually every hippie, would send to their parents:

“Dear Mother,

“I meant to write to you before this and I hope
you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los
Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian
Reservation!!!!! New York, Ajijic, San Miguel de
Allende, Mazatlán, Mexico!!!!! and it is really
beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here
a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it
happened, but I really tried, because I knew you wanted
me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college,
my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it
a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry
about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

… and in the heart of even the most unhip
mamma in all the U.S. of A. instinctively goes up the
adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades—dope.

Tom Wolfe. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The book captures these moments of this key moment so well that Wolfe may well have written a non-fiction Great American Novel. As Michael Lewis says in How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe, the book leaves you with the question:

How the hell did he do that? How did he get them to let him in, almost as one of them? Why do all these people keep letting this oddly dressed man into their lives, to observe them as they have never before been observed?

Michael Lewis. How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe.

Note: Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were obsessed with making a movie and took enormous amounts of footage of their exploits. Eventually, this footage was made into the movie Magic Trip which gives a glimpse into this world from another angle.

Footnotes

1 I thought I’d never get to The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test because I don’t read books, just listen to audiobooks. In a miracle of the audiobook world, Audible recently released the audio of 5 Tom Wolfe books including The Right Stuff, my favorite.
2 Alpert would later change his name to Baba Ram Dass and wrote the iconic book Be Here Now.
3 Ouspenskyian is a reference to P. D. Ouspensky who taught that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to awaken to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential.
4 There’s a lot that you miss when you boil Kesey down to this god-like leader of the Merry Pranksters. In the interview, Kesey points out that he’s far more patriotic than Wolfe captures. He made the pranksters wear red, white, and blue all the time to show their patriotism. When he first tried LSD he was training from the Olympics as a wrestler, never having tried drugs. He thought he was joining a US Government study to “enter this new spot of space and we wanted someone to go up there to look it over.” It was only 20 years later until he learned that this was a CIA project that wasn’t being done to cure insane people, it was done to make people insane and make them easier to interrogate.