On Rereading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

I first read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test back in the early 1970s when I was dabbling in the psychedelic culture from the perspective of a university in the San Francisco Bay Area. Taking psychedelics and smoking pot was almost all I did in those days, and my mind got really messed up. When I read about the exploits of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and how flippantly they dropped acid, played tricks on one another, palled around with the Hell’s Angels, stood up to cops, and went back and forth across the United States in a bright Day-Glo bus bursting with all the colors of the rainbow, I felt as if I was reading a Marvel comic for all the reality it afforded. I could barely pull my mind together after taking acid in that fairly conservative California university; I couldn’t imagine doing it under the circumstances that Wolfe describes in his book. Kesey famously asserted back then that you were either on the bus or off the bus. I would have been off the bus for sure.

Acid (and other hallucinogens like mescaline and psilocybin) messed me up; they didn’t center me or elevate me to a higher plane of existence. My first trips were confusing; subsequent trips were far worse: dark and paranoia-inducing and debilitating. Group scenes in close, confining spaces never did it for me as far as acid trips were concerned. The best trip I ever had, a trip that was purely positive and no negative at all that I can recall, was when I dropped acid with another traveler and we hiked up into the Himalayan foothills surrounding Katmandu. We had a wondrous, enchanting time; never mind that we got caught high up in the middle of nowhere with darkness coming on and had to spend the night in a cabin with a Nepali patrol that was guarding restricted areas in the mountains. You can read about that adventure in my memoir of my road days World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

I enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, but I don’t know if I would want to take psychedelics again even under the controlled circumstances he describes. The approach is too formal, too contrived. I think that if I experimented with hallucinogens again I would either want to be alone or with a soul-mate.

Anyway, back to Tom Wolfe’s book. It is written in a stream of consciousness style that Wolfe is obviously using to try to get into the spirit of the whole Merry Pranksters movement. The problem is that the style hasn’t aged well. When I first read the book I thought it was ostentatious; this time I found it annoying. There is page after page of run-on sentences that don’t really go anywhere. This becomes particularly acute during Kesey’s time as a fugitive down in Mexico while he was attempting to escape various charges of possession of marijuana. In one chapter, for instance, Wolfe goes on and on about a stinky red tide along the Mexican coast but doesn’t advance the story at all. I understand why he adopted this style, but I wish he hadn’t done it. He could have said so much more if he were only more straightforward. After all, he had access to Prankster archives and was able to interview many of the key players. He could have written an in-depth historical study that would be relevant even now. As it was, I feel that he went for the cheap thrill.

Okay, I know that there are many critics who would disagree with me; however, as I was reading this I searched for a biography of Kesey or a more traditional history of the Pranksters and came up short. This is all there is.

The book goes into Kesey’s early experiences with LSD as a paid experimental subject in a Stanford lab. This is when he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. From a suburb near Stanford Kesey and friends move to some property he buys near La Honda, and there they start getting into the wild behavior that eventually leads to the cross-country bus ride and the staged Acid Tests. One thing is obvious from Wolfe’s account: Kesey and the Pranksters were an anomaly. Kesey was only able to finance all of their escapades because of his first two successful novel sales. In the beginning, all of the Pranksters were white, and almost all came from elite or middle-class backgrounds. The Prankster culture was very male-dominant and macho. Wolfe takes pains to describe the ripped physiques of the male prankster leaders, especially Kesey the ex-wrestler and his friend Babs the ex-military man, and also Kesey’s fascination with the violent Hell’s Angels motorcycle club.

No, I wouldn’t have made a good Prankster. Their motto was “Never trust a Prankster,” but for me, the hippy culture was built on love, understanding, and trust. Without trust, what’s left? What’s the point?

Still, it was an interesting journey to read this book again. It certainly stirred up a lot of memories. It made me ponder my past in the light of my present and appreciate how far I have traveled, how much I have learned, and how much I wish I could have taught that young insecure acid head that I used to be.

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