I have never done acid. But after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I feel like I kind of have.
Released in 1968, Acid Test is Wolfe’s nonfiction account (also called literary journalism) of the acid-and-other-fun-substances-filled adventures of Ken Kesey (the “hipster Christ” author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and the Merry Pranksters, his colorful crew of crazies. Wolfe does his best to create a coherent, engaging and culturally significant narrative out of a million random episodes of general drug-induced mayhem — and for the most part, manages to succeed.
Each chapter of Acid Test reads like its very own trip. The novel is episodic rather than a full-circle narrative. Though I prefer the latter — it seems like episodic novels lack an emotional connection to the reader, due to their lack of continuity and subsequent void of tension — Wolfe keeps us engaged not only by the inherent intrigue of these stories (despite its clichéd overexposure, almost no one can resist a story about the 1960s drug culture) but with his idiosyncratic, bold and magnetic prose.
Wolfe begins where it all began: San Francisco, the capital of the Intellectual Hippie. After a few introductory chapters — of Kesey, the culture and the whole crowd — we enter the psychedelic core of the book when the Merry Pranksters travel across America in a tripped out van (the van itself is physically tripped out, but the people in it even more so). We encounter the hair-raising actions of an increasingly-paranoid Prankster, the group’s visit to Timothy Leary’s “League of Spiritual Discovery” in Millbrook, NY, an epic rager with Hell’s Angels, the Pranksters wreaking havoc at the Vietnam Day Committee’s massive anti-war rally at Berkeley, tripping with the Grateful Dead and multiple drug busts before we finally arrive at the book’s namesake: the acid tests (can you have a fruitful, freakout-free LSD experience?).
Although it is nonfiction, Wolfe’s description of the drug culture in the late 60s (fittingly) reads more like fiction throughout the book. Some of the paranoid sequences he observes from the Pranksters are definitely chilling — unsurprisingly, doing acid all the time leads to its share of problems. Judging from what Wolfe saw, I’m glad I wasn’t there. Wolfe exposes some harsh realities in the overly romanticized vision of happy hippies all on a bus together, while still retaining a relatively light, easy tone throughout.
Rather than write simple, straightforward prose and let the vibrancy of the content speak for itself, Wolfe writes a bit like he, too, is on acid the whole time. It’s a risk that worked for me. Wolfe’s writing is trippy and enchantingly free of cliché — it feels alive. It’s constantly bouncing around, going off on random but somehow relevant tangents, using strange punctuation like “:::” and italicized drug-induced rants from the characters. Rather than criticize or canonize Kesey and the Pranksters, though, he simply writes them with the richest and truest detail possible. The most judgment that occurs is when Wolfe calls their latest trends or ideas “the current fantasy,” hinting at the illusory nature of the lifestyle they take so seriously. He writes of a Prankster world “that can be truly understood only by opening the doors of perception and experiencing it…in this moment…this supreme moment…this kairos –.” It’s an idiosyncratic voice that is a lot to handle, but goes down smoothly.
In the end, though, Acid Test is an incredibly well-reported and well-written account of a fascinating micro-culture, essential for not just the sixties acid culture but the entire genre of creative nonfiction.
Time taken: 7 hours, but can be spread out across a long period of time since it’s not plot-driven.
Worth it? Yes