by Tom Wolfe
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Wolfe’s account of the psychedelic adventures Ken Kesey, the author, and his band of “heads” (acid heads), the Merry Pranksters––often in their crazy hippie bus. Having met Kesey in the midst of his drug possession trials in the late ’60s, Wolfe cobbled his book together from firsthand accounts of the Pranksters and their acquaintances, as well as letters, videos, and audio recordings. He relates their early experiments with LSD, making a huge mess-of-a-movie to capture the experience, into the days of their massive Acid Test parties, Kesey’s holing up in Mexico to avoid his prison sentence, and his subsequent return to the States to face the music and take things Furthur. And the book’s really something special, not just because Wolfe took pains to go beyond giving an accurate account of events, trying to get into the state of mind and the feelings in the moment, but because he succeeds.
There was a passage maybe a quarter of the way through The Acid Test where things feel like they really take off. I mean, it’s not to say that anything’s bad beforehand or anything, but it starts off fairly straightforward, with Wolfe providing context for what he understood of Kesey and his Pranksters when he took on the project, and then we suddenly get Neal Cassady––of On the Road fame––giving a breathless monologue to a cop, who pulled them over in the middle of a forest fire, about the bus’ handbrake that doesn’t actually do anything. From there, the book becomes surreal, absurd, and hilarious for a long, long stretch.
(And I must say that the author’s revisiting of that initial time with the Pranksters showcases his incredible growth at the end of his journey with them, this growth that goes unstated and unnoticed until he says it and it hits you, how he was quick to judge them when he first met them, but, as he spends time with them, as he learns what they’ve done and where they’re going, he gets it.)
But the book’s so much more than a farce. Part of the reason the author succeeds with capturing the moments and the emotions is that he’s so adept at writing with descriptive language. It’s not just visually descriptive stuff; it’s down to fine details, like nuances of speech, that make these real-world people feel real. And he shows a great understanding of the culture he describes, such as when talking about the attraction of psychedelic drugs to the heads and when trying to get to the heart of the psychedelic experience. Here the writing almost mimics the work of authors who were heavily influenced by drugs, Kesey included, and it works.
This deep understanding of the culture and the experience, however, is probably the most significant thing that hits you while reading, and it’s really hard to describe just how effective Wolfe is here. There was another passage where he got me, where Kesey and only two other Pranksters drop acid and start rolling around in the mud. Nobody else on the bus took a hit, but the joy, the euphoria of the moment just washed over them all, and it was almost as if they all did it. And I felt it, too. And that’s really why The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is something special: Wolfe gets you on the bus.