The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 16 May 2002

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

by Tom Wolfe

While an acid trip is an exceptional experience, and people often have the feeling they've reached another level of existence, it is usually something impossible to put into words. And, when people make the attempt, to others unfamiliar with LSD, the trip can sound boring or trite. This is, perhaps, the one drawback to Tom Wolfe's story about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they explored the expanding universe of LSD and the psychedelic experience in the mid 1960s, before psychedelia exploded on the Scene and became an icon of fashion and rebellion. Wolfe's compelling telling of this story is sprinkled with various trips, good and bad. While the trips themselves may not convey the experience sufficiently, his writing is snappy and fast paced, littered with the cultural lingo of the day. Kesey, the well respected author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion experimented with acid and other psychedelic drugs and formed a circle of friends and fellow travellers around him. In 1964, the Pranksters took a famous road trip in the magic old school bus named Furthur, a trip they filmed, recorded and wrote about. This was, arguably, the beginning of the psychedelic 60s. Back in La Honda, California, Kesey's circle expanded their minds and artistic and social expression, wrapping up the Beatniks and the Hell's Angels, among others. Wolfe himself walked on to the scene after Kesey's arrest for marijuana and subsequent flight to Mexico. Kesey, by then, was preaching the next step beyond the LSD experience and made himself unpopular among the movement which had grown to tremendous fashionable proportions by the end of 1966. I can hardly imagine Wolfe, in his dapper white suit, among the scraggly hippies and aboard their crazy bus. Yet Wolfe does succeed in capturing the feeling, speed, and overwhelming adventure of the Merry Pranksters. (And he drops a dizzying array of names along the way. Just a small sampling: Stewart Brand, Jack Kerouac, Mountain Girl, Jerry Garcia, Timothy Leary, Larry McMurtry, Fritz Perls, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, and Paul Krassner) Wolfe also captures the power struggles in a movement that supposedly had no leaders. Kesey, to the Pranksters, was a prophetic figure with charisma and personal energy that drew people to him, but also engendered some conflict. Meanwhile, there are intimations of unorthodox relationships between Kesey, his wife, Mountain Girl, and others in the group. Not to mention the children. Wolfe doesn't explore these stories much, and the reader may want to learn more. This was, perhaps, at its time, a record explicating Kesey's thinking in a turbulent era. Today, with Kesey gone, it is a riveting and challenging historical document. A must read for historians of the late 20th century.

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Also by Wolfe: [From Bauhaus to Our House]

[Other books in or about California]

[Other books on the 60s & Counterculture]