I can now confirm the existence of extraterrestrial life forms because Tom Wolfe is certainly an alien. The man is all over the map with his skill-sets. A while back, I read and reviewed The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe’s first novel, published in 1987. It is a well-written, provocative piece, but it’s also pretty “normal” in the sense that it doesn’t push the envelope stylistically. Interestingly, Wolfe is credited for creating and popularizing the “push the envelope” phrase in his book The Right Stuff. Just remember…
On the other hand, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test* tears up the envelope and throws the pieces up like covfefe. It is a nonfiction piece in which Wolfe describes the roller coaster life of esteemed author Ken Kesey and his close, cultish circle—the Merry Pranksters. The book retells actual events, following the physical, spiritual, and legal trajectory of Kesey, from when he first became interested in LSD as a mind-expanding drug while writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to when he introduced “acid-tests” across the country, designed to break down mental barriers and achieve ultimate intersubjectivity. Wolfe’s chronicles include the Prankster’s run-ins with famous authors (like Kerouac), Hells Angels, and the Grateful Dead.
Clearly, this is a unique subject matter, and Wolfe rises to the occasion. The eccentricity of Kesey and his pranksters requires an eccentric voice to match. So, Wolfe incorporates unconventional literary devices that jazz up otherwise objective reporting. Similar to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, in which the person telling the story is a key participant in the story itself, Wolfe dabbles in New Journalism—a form that blurs the lines of journalism and art. New Journalism still reports facts but from a somewhat subjective perspective.
In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe experiments through diction, syntax, and punctuation. He claims, “I have tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to re-create the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it. I don’t think their adventure can be understood without that” (Wolfe 415). And he’s correct, in my opinion. He draws readers into what it feels like to be alongside Kesey while simultaneously explicitly telling us what it is like to be alongside Kesey. He captures and induces a mood, but also relays information.
For example, Kesey held the notion that “you’re either on the bus or off the bus” (Wolfe, 83). There was a literal busand you better get your ass on it or you’ll be left. But Wolfe doesn’t just quote Kesey and then leave readers to figure out that little cracked out fortune cookie. Wolfe shows us what it means to be off the bus, i.e. not attune to the group consciousness. The very words themselves, the rhythm of them strewn together, and the appearance of them on the page, reeks of that on-or-off-the-bus aura.
It would be difficult for a book about such an unusual cast of characters to be bad because the people are so intrinsically interesting. Kesey, much like historical prophetic figures, had persuasive, articulate, and innovative beliefs about what it’s like to exist and relate in the metaphysical world. His philosophy stemmed from the ideas of Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. Luckily for you, I’ve reviewed that book and you can read all about his ideas!
Unfortunately, with Kesey as the main focus, other compelling characters remain underdeveloped. Neal Cassady notoriously inspired the big names of the Beat Generation—a 1950s bohemian literary movement that morphed into the hippie wave of the 1960s via Cassady and Kesey. The fact that we read virtually nothing about Cassady, other than his speed-fueled way of speech and daring driving, means that the content of Kool-Aid could have been better distributed. Less Kesey, more everyone else.
Speaking of less and more, the mantra *less is more* goes unheeded. The book is too damn long. Wolfe’s method of pulling readers into Kesey’s vision feels a bit like virtual reality goggles. The images are interesting and exciting…to a point. At 415 pages, Kool-Aid’s novelty wears off and ultimately feels too disjointed; thus, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.
*Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Picador, 1968. Print.