The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Analysis
by Tom Wolfe

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test begins very nearly where it ends, with novelist Ken Kesey in a San Mateo, California, jail awaiting trial for drug possession. From there, however, it loops back in time to tell the tale of Kesey and his Merry Pranksters from their beginnings in 1963 to their demise less than four years later, with a number of pages devoted to Kesey’s pre-Prankster days at the bohemian Perry Lane community near Stanford University. Like the legendary Robin Hood and his band of merry men, Kesey and his Pranksters possessed a vision of social change, the precise nature and extent of which Tom Wolfe attempts both to describe in his odd text and to embody in the very manner of its telling.

For those readers interested in Kesey as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), the early pages devoted to the Perry Lane period will prove the most useful: Kesey’s surprising ordinariness and authenticity (against the well-heeled pseudobohemianism of most of the Perry Laners), his meeting with Vic Lovell and subsequent participation in the experimental drug program at the Veterans Hospital at Menlo Park, and the ways in which those experiments (as well as others initiated by Kesey) influenced the writing of his first and best novel. That period serves as the necessary background for what follows, but, as with Kesey’s wife and three children, that background quickly fades away as soon as the next phase begins. Having just delivered the manuscript of his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), to his publisher and suddenly awash in the royalties from his first, Kesey decides to forgo the role of novelist, one who records the passing action, and instead to become the one who makes it happen, to be, in Kesey’s own words, the “lightning rod” rather than the “seismograph.” The results of that decision were, as Wolfe recounts them, at once cataclysmic and anticlimactic, exhilarating and sad.

Wolfe has Kesey and his band emerging Phoenix-like from the ashes of San Francisco’s beatnik bohemia of the 1950’s in the city’s North Beach area. Kesey’s Pranksters were different and far more diverse—an eclectic as well as electric group. They included Ken Babbs, former helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and Neal Cassady, fresh from the pages of Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, On the Road (1957), and a host of others, some permanent, others not, but most dropouts from American middle-class culture and known not by name but by epithet (Mountain Girl, Golden Mouth, Zonker). Individually, except for Kesey, they are nearly nonentities; together, they constitute the leading edge of an American society based upon openness, communal sharing, spontaneity, and extreme permissiveness. Or so they believe. Their watchword is “intersubjectivity,” but whether their harmony is real or illusory is a question Wolfe raises without ever quite answering.

Their identity is summed up in a perfect metonymy, their fantastically pastel-painted International Harvester bus that frequently breaks down but that always bears the same cartoonishly spelled destination sign, “Furthur.” In their ongoing efforts at “tootling the multitudes”—the Pranksters’ epater les bourgeoisie—they travel further than not only the middle classes but even those who had taken Timothy Leary’s advice and turned on, tuned in, and dropped out: on to drugs, in to transcendental reality, and out of middle-class conventionality. The Pranksters judge Leary and his League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) wanting—too privatistic, too intellectual, too well financed, too “constipated,” and too Eastern (New York as well as India). Nevertheless, even those who have gravitated to California’s Esalen Institute to learn how to live in the ever-changing Now steer clear of Kesey when he arrives to lead a seminar. The scenes at Millbrook and Esalen point in two directions: at the phoniness or conventionality of such enterprises and, conversely, at the very real...

(The entire section is 1,865 words.)