17 September 2006

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe

September 17 2006 (19:36:00) ( 0 views )

372 pages. Bantam Books, October 1969.
On the cover of this timeworn paperback on loan from a friend (thanks, Doc!) is a blurb from a NY Times Review. It says "The best book on the hippies."

I'm not sure that this book is "on the hippies," but it certainly is "on" the Merry Pranksters, a loosely knit group of LSD aficionados centered around Ken Kesey in the 1960s.

Tom Wolfe's portrayal of the life and times of the Pranksters is poetic and appropriate. He uses some far-out prose tricks and insterted poetry to create the psychedelic atmosphere necessary to tell the tale of this subcultural bubble.

Kesey and his crowd were most assuredly heavy users of many drugs. Wolfe's recounting of the heroic consumption of speed in many forms amongst Pranksters and near-Pranksters is awe-inspiring in itself. Add to this the frequent, intense LSD trips, the constant consumption of cannabis, and the other psychedelic hors d'ouevres at this years-long party and one has a testimony to the durability of the human body in the face of diverse chemical assaults.

Wolfe quotes Kesey on page 4 from a letter to Larry McMurtry. Wolfe's description of the letters:

"...wild and ironic, written like a cross between William Burroughs and George Ade...written in the third person..."

From the letters:

"...this young...happily-married-three-lovely-children father was a fear-crazed dope fiend in flight to avoid prosecution...

"...Once possessor of a phenomenal bank account...it was all his poor wife could do to scrape together eight dollars...

"What...brought [him] to so low a state in so short a time?...


The book chronicles the many "Acid Tests," and long road trips in "Furthur," the Pranksters' bus. It's hard to really distill what happened on all these occasions -- it's hard to actually understand even while reading it -- this was some pioneering into alternative reality mixed with dropping out. Indeed, Kesey and the Pranksters disdained (and were disdained by) elements of the contemporary subculture that you might think they'd have been friendly with. But Kesey's country ways and directness were unacceptable to the elite among the Beats, and as he told the Vietnam Day Committee's rally: "you're playing their game."

Some time points:
1962: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
1964: Sometimes A Great Notion
April 1965:Kesey arrested for possession of marijuana
January 1966: The flight to Mexico to avoid prosecution
October 1966: Kesey sneaks back into the US, but is caught by the FBI near San Francisco.

What Kesey said about whether he would be writing any more: "I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph." (p. 8)

Some of the Merry Pranksters:
Mountain Girl
Paul Foster
Neal Cassady
Ken Babbs
Black Maria
Doris Delay
George Walker
Freewheeling Frank

On the Prankster lifestyle -- life "on the bus":

"...suddenly it hits me that for the Pranksters this is permanent. This is the way they live... sailing like gypsies along the Servicenter fringes, copping urinations, fencing with rotten looks... they have films and tapes of their duels with service-station managers...trying to keep their concrete bathrooms and empty Dispensa-towels safe from the Day-glo crazies..." (p. 16)

Day-glo was a fond toy of the Pranksters, its use is frequently mentioned.

Kesey's family:
wife: Faye
daughter: Shannon 6
sons: Zane 5, Jed 3

Here's a website with some Prankster history, etc.

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