Few books so captivate the imagination, so stimulate the senses, so fully invigorate the mind and spirit as does Tom Wolfe’s chef-d’oeuvre “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” It is a work of very creative nonfiction that details the escapades of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey in his post-novelist years. Kesey was the messiah behind the psychedelic movement in the United States of the 1960s, the captain of a fantastic DayGlo boat coursing the New Wave of the future. His main group of accomplices, known as the Merry Pranksters, were among the first to fully believe his vision, and were dedicated to bringing it to life. They painted an old school bus with vivid patterns, rigged it with a complex sound system, and took off across the continental US, blasting the Beatles, terrifying “square” citizens, and irritating the bejeezus out of any policeman they encountered along the way.
The book arguably has no plot, no definite beginning-middle-end. It only recounts a portion of Kesey’s life, with no indication of his future. But therein lies its beauty. The Pranksters’ steady consumption of LSD, DMT, marijuana, and the like cemented them fully in the present, and Wolfe’s writing similarly pins the reader in the moment. As Kesey put it, LSD threw open the doors of the subconscious, and he encouraged everyone to do the same. Wolfe recreates the psychedelic experience for the layman, and paints the story with fascinatingly bright colors, enough luminescence to make the eyes roll and the brain to fire synapses like heavy duty artillery. His writing is not the incomprehensible scribbles of a crazed acid freak however, but rather a beautiful, immersive landscape, at times surrealistic but never beyond a sober consciousness’ grasp. Though understandable, Wolfe is not patronizing. The non-LSD-experienced readers are not addressed with disdain. Wolfe simply grabs their hand and drags them flailing into his kaleidoscopic world, prying their eyes open and making them truly see.
The first few pages of the novel illustrate a key idea: Kesey’s wanting to move beyond acid, for the entire population to permanently blow the door of the subconscious off its hinges and let universal harmony rule supreme. His was an inspirational and lovely message, a desire for peace and spiritual transcendence for all. Wolfe transcribes this with great sincerity and respect, delivering to the reader how important the idea was to Kesey. The experiences of the Pranksters are portrayed with similar sympathy and adoration; the author’s tremendous love for his subjects bleeds through every page. The plot weaves through several locales in Mexico and the United States, spans several years, and introduces many colorful characters, but still manages to never be confusing. The people are so distinctly described, the places so easily imagined that only the inattentive reader can be blamed for any misunderstanding.
One may be tempted to discredit “The Electric Kool Aid Test” as psychedelic propaganda, but that would be akin to calling “The Great Gatsby” an advertisement for alcohol, or “On the Road” an endorsement for Benzedrine. Wolfe’s work is so much more, a snapshot of its moment in time, capturing the wonder and bizarreness of Kesey and his Pranksters. They were, after all, the group most directly responsible for the period’s contemporary counterculture. This book is an important work, one with historic and cultural value, a record of memories and sentiments of the time, things not published in any official textbooks. Along with the more traditionally recognized titles like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Moby Dick,” “The Electric Kool Aid Test” is fully deserving of the title Great American Novel. Readers interested in an in-depth look at a past generation’s values must acquire a copy immediately.