REVIEW: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

REVIEW: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom WolfeThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
Published: Bantam Books (1968), Hardcover, 412pg
Source: Library
Genres: Biography, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Tom Wolfe’s much-discussed kaleidoscopic non-fiction novel chronicles the tale of novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. In the 1960s, Kesey led a group of psychedelic sympathizers around the country in a painted bus, presiding over LSD-induced “acid tests” all along the way. Long considered one of the greatest books about the history of the hippies, Wolfe’s ability to research like a reporter and simultaneously evoke the hallucinogenic indulgence of the era ensures that this book, written in 1967, will live long in the counter-culture canon of American literature. (from Amazon)

I had to read this for one of my classes, and unfortunately I don’t remember what my prof said about it even though we only talked about it like two weeks ago. This isn’t my favorite book in the world, and in fact I had such a difficult time finishing it that I’m feeling a bit hostile. I said on Twitter that after finishing it I was going to give myself a few days to get over my antagonism towards it so I could write a decent review– so that’s what this is. My attempt at writing something more than “those damn acid heads.”

As a novel, I find The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test boring as hell. There’s only so many times I can read about what acid makes you feel like when you’re on it, and the entire book is about acid and what it makes you feel like. It’s interesting for the first few pages, but by the end I was just hoping for someone to start doing some cocaine or something, just for a change. 400 pages of acid-induced hallucinations and acid head babbling is about 300 pages too many, and not even the compelling characters could drag me out of my apathetic towards their acid-filled lives.

Add onto all that the fact that I’m not overly interested in 1960’s drug culture or the plight of middle-class white Americans who think living in a slum is high adventure, and it made for some dull times. I had to force myself through the last 100 pages, and even then I skimmed most of it.

One night she was high and experiences the unity, the All-one. A light was behind her in the room and hit her body from behind and broke up into beams and shone out before her, hitting the floor and the walls in spokes of light with shadows in between. The room broke up before her eyes and separated in just that pattern with bars of light vibrating. Suddenly it became very clear, the way the room was put together, the way the parts fit, the way the parts of everything fit, as if someone had taken an Indian puzzle ring apart for her. It was clear how everything fit together and it wasn’t really a world split up into pointless games and cliques. That was merely the way it looked before you knew the key. And now there were beautiful people who knew the key and this experience could be shared. (300)

As a piece of New Journalism, I really like it. It’s very different from other non-fiction books I’ve read before, and the feeling of it seems very true to the times and the situations the people starring in it found themselves in. The way Wolfe used punctuation, poetry, italics, pacing, etc. was really excellent, and occasionally I found myself “getting into the groove” with the writing. It was also really obvious that Wolfe had done his research, talking to everyone who was involved with the Kesey/Merry Prankster scene and even attending a few events himself. I don’t know if he ever took LSD himself, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

It was also kind of fun reading the 1960’s lingo and seeing the Grateful Dead still young and cool instead of, er, not. It also talked a lot about the culture of New York hipsters versus California hippies, and that’s sort of interesting if you like pop culture history. The early sort of drug/hippie culture is so very different from what it ended up as, I think, and there’s a little of that change-over happening in this book.

The author

It starts off with the acid heads happy and excited about LSD– it was new and never-before-seen!– and the possibilities it held for enriching the spirit and bringing people together and fixing what was wrong with the world, and then by the end it was just another way for people to get high and forget themselves, and nobody was very much interested in doing any sort of social or personal change beyond taking LSD in the first place. Ken Kesey, really the person who started the whole LSD movement, tried to get people interested in going beyond using drugs as a gateway but they weren’t into it/him/what he was saying anymore. I felt sort of bad for Kesey and his acid head friends, but at the same time they never really DID anything except get high (and encourage other people to get high). It wasn’t so much a spiritual movement (as in the 1980’s maybe, with New Age?) as it was a drug movement, and I personally can’t find much favor in something that just wants people to, well, waste their life sitting in heaps of trash licking acid tablets. I suppose that makes me a square? (I do feel like a square, especially after reading this book.) But really, what did they do with all their “knowledge” of how the world/people/society worked? Invent acid rock? I guess that’s good enough.

Now I feel like I’m missing something. Maybe I should read more about drugs or countercultures in the 60’s– it’s just, I don’t see what the POINT is in being constantly high on something. Life is already exciting enough for me as it is, and I don’t think I need acid to make it more interesting. But that’s just my viewpoint, and no doubt there are people out there who think drugs (and other things. Crime?) make life happier for them.

(Sidenote: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test doesn’t really go into the side-effects of LSD, including the infamous flashbacks. It mentions some newbies getting bad trips, and how the oldies talked them through it, and it talks about one Prankster getting more and more paranoid (also Kesey, later), but it doesn’t say that they were paranoid because of the LSD or because of something else. I think maybe it was written still pretty early on in LSD’s existence that they didn’t know everything about it and what it could do to you. Maybe?)

Anyway, I think if you’re interested in hippies, drug culture, Ken Kesey or even just California in the 1960’s, you might like this book. You might also like it if you’re interested in different types of journalism, or unusual ways of writing non-fiction, and you might also like it if you liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Read: October 31-November 12, 2010

3 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe”

  1. I’m glad you reviewed this book, even if you felt hostile towards it. I’ve actually never read extended Tom Wolfe, just some essays and little pieces of this book in an anthology, but wasn’t sure if I’d want to. I’m of the same mine about why spend all your time high when life is pretty cool anyway, so the plight of white hippies sounds not that exciting. But… your point about it being interesting New Journalism is a good one, and makes me feel like I should read, but borrowing like you suggest 🙂

    1. I was definitely thinking of you when I read it! I thought, “Kim would probably like this for the journalism aspect,” and then I wondered if you had already read it. 😀 You might like it for that part, although it’s a pretty long example so maybe something shorter would be better.

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