Tom Wolfe writes himself into the second sentence of his book about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, describing a boaty ride up and down the streets of San Francisco in the open bed of a Day-Glo-painted pickup truck. It’s better than a half-year before 1967’s Summer of Love, and the New York City clotheshorse and leading practitioner of New Journalism looks dowdy compared to the beaded, feathered, medallioned, and headbanded crew of Kesey associates on board with him.
Wolfe sustains this “you are there” intimacy for the next 400 or so pages, taking you directly into the heads of his subjects when necessary to chronicle three years of Prankster adventures in consciousness along the California coast, across the country in Furthur, their now famous Day-Gloed 1939 International Harvester school bus, down to Mexico, where Kesey skedaddled to escape prosecution for possession of marijuana, and back to San Francisco.
The immediacy is an illusion, because as every Deadhead and tripster knows, Wolfe was never “on the bus.” Yet Wolfe’s illusion isn’t a false one. It’s a testament to his reportorial skills, which many readers miss because they’re blinded by his bodacious punctuation. “Style can’t carry a story if you haven’t done the reporting,” Wolfe once attested. As The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test approaches its fortieth consecutive year in print, it’s still the best account — fictional or non, in print or on film — of the genesis of the sixties hipster subculture.
As a raconteur of that culture, Wolfe has competition. Hunter S. Thompson’s sensational Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967), which shares locale and cast with Acid Test, introduces the libertine theme that Wolfe’s book carries to completion: What possesses people living in a time of unparalleled freedom and a place of unmatched beauty to rebel and demand more? Thompson can’t universalize his story because the Hell’s Angels were allied with Satan and he didn’t really want to in the first place. But Wolfe finds in the Pranksters the germ of a midcentury religious awakening with great potential for universalization, if for no other reason than that the Pranksters were on the side of the angels even though they caroused with the Hell’s Angels.
Charles Perry captures the culture of hip in The Haight-Ashbury: A History (1984), and the novelists Richard Farina (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, 1966) and T. Coraghessan Boyle (Drop City, 2003) reflect its spirit. What gives Wolfe the literary leg up on the competition is having a genuine hero — Kesey — who can carry his epic story about the origins of a new culture. Wolfe’s Kesey is heroic in the Homeric rather than the tragic sense — manly, clever, a leader, daring, and charismatic. Wolfe’s other great book, The Right Stuff, similarly exploits a real-life hero, Chuck Yeager, to excellent results. It’s no accident that the portraits of Kesey and Yeager are more fully realized than that of any character to be found in Wolfe’s fiction. His regard for his heroes has the added benefit of curbing his satirical voice. Satire, even served by a master like Wolfe, is a better spice than a main course.
What makes The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test all the more remarkable is that Wolfe composed its first version on newspaper deadline. It appeared in three installments in January and February 1967 for New York, the legendary Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune that later would become New York magazine, where he was on staff.
Writing for New York and Esquire in the sixties was like playing saxophone at the cutting contests at Minton’s: You weren’t just reporting and writing, you were competing against the likes of Jimmy Breslin, Norman Mailer, Gail Sheehy, Brock Brower, Gay Talese, Terry Southern, and others. These giants were restoring strong narrative, detailed reporting, and point of view to American feature journalism.
The competition extended to editors’ offices. At the time, New York’s editor, Clay Felker, and Harold Hayes at Esquire were rivals for Wolfe’s widely acknowledged talents. Wolfe’s breakthrough piece, “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” about custom-car culture, had been assigned to him by Esquire during the 1963 New York City newspaper strike. Wolfe claims that he was blocked and that his editor, Byron Dobell, told him to send notes, as the magazine had already committed art and pages to the story. Working in the wee a.m. against the rock ’n’ roll soundtrack provided by WABC-AM, Wolfe compiled a hyper memorandum that ran for forty-nine pages. According to the legend provided by Wolfe, Dobell struck the “Dear Byron” at the top and ran the notes as the story.
“Published notes” makes a great tale, so great that Hunter S. Thompson would deploy a variant of it to explain the visceral quality of his feature “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” but “Kandy-Kolored” doesn’t read like any writer’s notes I’ve ever examined. What Wolfe may have discovered was his voice, previously smothered under editors’ varnish, and the willingness of editors to take seriously his high-brow, Ph.D.-in-American-Studies (Yale) ideas about pop culture in a mass-circulation magazine.
Wolfe intended to fold the Kesey pieces into a future collection of work, but as he commenced to rewrite them he saw the potential of a book. This posed a reportorial problem: The Pranksters had been stoned so much of the time, so who was to say what was true and what was fable? Fortunately there were forty-five hours of film for him to mine that the Pranksters had shot of their Furthur road trips and “acid tests,” those psyche-bruising parties in which they commandeered a hall, a club, or a warehouse and apple-seeded California with LSD.
Wolfe also relied on the letters Kesey had sent from Mexico to his friend, the novelist Larry McMurtry, which he used to climb inside the acid king’s head. Wolfe was an old hand at mind-meld journalism, having prospected the rock producer Phil Spector’s brain in 1964 to describe his panic attack aboard an airplane in “The First Tycoon of Teen.” “You really feel you know the person well enough and what their state was in this particular incident or you don’t,” Wolfe would later say, adding that Spector confirmed the accuracy of the account. “What I try to do is re-create a scene from a triple point of view: the subject’s point of view, my own, and that of the other people watching — often within a single paragraph,” he said in a 1966 interview.
The Pranksters also offered Wolfe the hours of madcap, reality-bending audio recordings they’d made. He interviewed dozens of Pranksters and Prankster fellow-travelers, Kesey’s friends from his time at the Stanford University graduate writing program, such as Ed McClanahan and Robert Stone, and he vacuumed up additional tapes and unpublished accounts to get the story. Hunter S. Thompson generously provided interview tapes and other recordings of the Hell’s Angels at Kesey’s place, explains Marc Weingarten in his valuable new book, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight. Finally, at a distance from the charismatic Kesey, Wolfe downed 125 micrograms of LSD to learn from the inside what the fuss was all about. His trip was unpleasant, but necessary. “It was like tying yourself to the railroad track and seeing how big the train is, which is rather big,” Wolfe said in 1983.
If the magazine pieces were completed on a newspaper deadline, the book was written on a magazine deadline, with Wolfe producing the bulk of it in four intense months, revising in galleys, and publishing it to superlative reviews in August 1968.
Wolfe claims among literary inspirations a band of experimental Soviet writers — the collective “Serapion Brothers,” Boris Pilniak, Yevgeni Zamyatin, author of We, and others — whom he encountered in the stacks during grad school. “From Zamyatin, I got the idea of the oddly punctuated inner thoughts. I began using a lot of exclamation points and dashes and multiple colons. A lot of dots. The idea was, that’s the way people think. People don’t think in well-formed sentences,” Wolfe told Rolling Stone in 1987. The dots and dashes, the all-capital passages, the onomatopoeia (“whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”), the odd “:::::” sequences, and other typographical excesses scar The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test like a bad case of jungle rot. In Wolfe’s defense, strong experimentation was called for in a project about LSD culture. As Acid Test has remained in print, its stylistic flourishes have become no more outrageous than William Faulkner’s similar ambition, never realized, to publish The Sound and the Fury using different colored inks to communicate time and event.
Treating Kesey as a latter-day prophet and the Merry Pranksters as disciples who have discovered a new religion, new sacraments, and gone on the road to spread it could be judged a matter of a writer’s Ph.D. overpowering a simpler tale about a group of founding stoners. “If there was ever a group devoted totally to the here and now it was the Pranksters,” Wolfe writes in Acid Test. “I remember puzzling over this. There was something so . . . religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it.” But by the time Wolfe describes Kesey and the Pranksters practically taking over a Unitarian retreat to which they had been invited and nearly driving the Unitarians and their children to religion, you begin to believe.
Of course, Kesey and the Pranksters didn’t single-handedly invent psychedelic culture, and they weren’t the only LSD proselytizers in the midsixties. Timothy Leary instructed his followers to drop acid in a quiet room, escape the material world, and merge with the godhead. The Pranksters, on the other hand, swung the big broom, sweeping everything into their acid gospel — trash and kitsch, consumer culture, spray paint, electronics, daredevilry, and practical jokes, and it was their version that rose to dominance. Young people in San Francisco, then California, then around the world followed their template: The Pranksters literally wore the flag, which would become a cliché by 1969, if not before; they imagined themselves comic-book heroes; romanticized the American Indian; they playfully taunted the straights; and they danced all night as they immersed themselves in the mixed-media salad of rock music, tape-recorder feedback loops, whirling movie cameras, strobe lights, and cosmic light shows.
Whether the Prankster notions about how best to experience and interpret psychedelic drugs ascended because it was the optimum prescription or simply because Wolfe’s best-selling report immediately achieved canonical status in every college town, high school, and dirt-road hamlet — wherever young people wanted to get high and drive — can’t be teased apart. Doonesbury’s cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, for one, lifted the name of Merry Prankster Steve “Zonker” Lambrecht and gave it to the Pranksteresque acidhead in his strip. Just as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road inspires folks to hitchhike the country, Wolfe’s book still provides map and route for modern explorers of internal space. What’s the annual Burning Man festival — with all its costumes, modern pharmaceuticals, spacey music, bright lights, and tribal noise — but a grander, updated acid test?
If all journalism is autobiography, there’s a fair bit of Wolfe in his portrait of Ken Kesey, the outsider, challenger of the literary establishment, and failed movement leader. Almost a decade before Wolfe declared his school of narrative-powered New Journalism as the successor to the novel and about two decades before Wolfe heeded his own call for the return of the reported novel by publishing Bonfire of the Vanities, Kesey had produced two reported works of fiction, 1962’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1964’s Sometimes a Great Notion. The antiunion message of Sometimes a Great Notion, which glorifies strike-breaking loggers, makes the reactionary journalism of Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” in which he lampooned a Leonard Bernstein benefit for the Black Panthers, seem like a Ripon Society pamphlet in comparison. Wolfe encouraged the comparison to Kesey in 1989 by rejecting the conservative and reactionary labels, telling the Paris Review he preferred being called a “seer.”
While both Kesey and Wolfe had their visions, neither turned out to be much of a seer. The New Journalism didn’t replace the novel, as the somewhat messianic Wolfe later predicted it would in 1973’s The New Journalism, and Wolfe’s successes with the reported novel haven’t been widely imitated. Kesey, who abandoned the novel to stage drug-aided real-time dramas with the Pranksters, failed to take the psychedelic movement through the next “door” by going “beyond acid,” i.e., to a place where drugs weren’t needed. He wrote very little noteworthy fiction or nonfiction after Sometimes a Great Notion. He seems to have lost his bearings in the process of rising from literary fame to celebrity, which Wolfe describes in Acid Test. It would be fair to say the transformation from fame to celebrity has fatigued Wolfe, too.
Like many forty-year-olds, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test carries a wad of fat around its midriff that could be pruned without harming the body. Modern readers can scan the portions set like poetry without missing much. There’s a sameness to many of the Prankster adventures — Hey, somebody else’s acid trip can never be as interesting as your own! — and the book stalls for me when Kesey goes to Mexico. But as I recall reading the book when it was still green, when Kesey and acid and Owsley and The Grateful Dead and psychedelia were still au courant, it hummed along with remarkable economy.
Far from inspiring a legion of journalists to renew the craft, Wolfe mostly — and quite inadvertently — spawned two generations’ worth of boneheads who thought the lesson of New Journalism was to pound on the exclamation key while writing yourself into the story. He also became the scapegoat for journalistic scandal and excess — from Janet Cooke (the Los Angles Times media critic David Shaw did the finger-pointing) to Bob Woodward’s indulgent “you are there” scenes.
This is a little like blaming The Beatles for The Monkees. Had Wolfe never pushed the stylistic boundaries, we’d still be acknowledging his career-long knack for discovering cultural trends and making sense of them. It ain’t an easy beat. The Department of Commerce doesn’t publish quarterly statistics showing a rise in religious yearning, a spike in surf culture, or a growing societal trend of self-obsession that a cultural reporter can plot and graph.
As the Bible and many lesser books show, narrative is the finest container ever devised to transport ideas, especially transporting ideas over time. Forty years from now, when Wolfe’s book, I predict, will still be in print, our grandchildren will be celebrating his role in resuscitating the narrative form. They’ll marvel at his hack-like abilities to get just enough of the hard-to-get portions of the acid legend to tell the complete story with authority. And they’ll be carrying a copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in their hip pockets.
Jack Shafer writes the Press Box column for Slate. He thanks Michael Dolan, Andrew Ferguson, Nick Gillespie, and Jack Boulware for their willingness to feed him their good Wolfe ideas.