Wednesday, March 4, 2009
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
The cover of this book drew me to it. Within a week of seeing it on the shelf of a Borders, I had to purchase it. Within a month, I have now read it. It was definitely an interesting book to look into reading.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe is a nonfictional account that follows Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s as they experiment with different types of drugs. Wolfe follows them on their zany experiences and records what he sees. He traveled with them for some time, interviewed them, and gathered research from diaries, interviews, and movie footage (40 hours were taken to be exact).
It came out right after all these events occurred, so it was really fresh at its publication. It is quite a different piece of journaling (similar to the off-the-wall, different techniques of Hunter S. Thompson). They take journalism to a whole new level with these pieces. They ignore the rules and tell a wild story.
The book was a bit challenging to read (very similar to A Clockwork Orange). Wolfe has a very different style that makes it hard to understand chronology, or what is going on in general. He writes in a very free, loose style (breaking off into poetry at many points), mainly to capture the mindset of a Merry Prankster whose mind is going in a million directions because of the drugs consumed. He really does capture their mindset in his writing style. Oftentimes he will rant about something strange and then abruptly end it; sometimes he will break off into poetry or have his prose strangely cut off with words and phrases. It really is a unique piece of journaling.
Wolfe never partakes (for the most part) with the Pranksters. He mainly gets down what is happening. He does have an experience at one of the Acid Tests, and he gets it down very clearly as to how it is to experience taking the drug. The book is a wild ride if you're really into it.
The book chronicles the Merry Pranksters as they set off on various journeys. The book takes place after Kesey writes his novel One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest. He rents out a big van that the Pranksters decorate in crazy Day-Glo and they travel around to rough up the establishment and give out drugs to willing participants. They earn quite a reputation, and Kesey is often sought after by the police even though they couldn't do much at the time since acid wasn't illegal yet.
Later, the book explores the Merry Pranksters living on a ranch with Kesey in California. There, they take drugs and welcome those who come to live or party with them. Famously, they put a stake in their yard that welcomes the Hells Angels. Soon enough, they show up and party for three days. Wild time. Another time they invite the Beatles. Unfortunately, they do not show up. They attend a concert of theirs, and afterwards, their ranch is overflowing with people who showed up to party, for days.
Kesey has a lot of well-known people come to party with him. Besides members of the Hells Angels, he has Allen Ginsberg join him frequently. He also has Owsley (the real guru and maker of acid at the time) come and join him many times. It's very cool to see who was around at that time.
Eventually, Kesey hosts Acid Tests. The Pranksters rent out large facilities and invite unknowing guests to hang out and watch movies. They serve giant tubs of Kool Aid (hence the book's title), and people just get strung out on acid. It becomes a crazy experience that lapses many, many hours, and oftentimes the police come to break things up. The Grateful Dead came and jammed at these acid tests, making them the creators of acid rock. Sometimes they would play for ten minutes, sometimes they would play for hours. I couldn't imagine a free Dead concert under that circumstance.
Unfortunately, Kesey was starting to build a reputation that was making a lot of people angry (especially the police). He was making drugs cool and was creating a counter-culture that frightened many people. So, they end up going after him for whatever they can. Kesey ends up having two charges against him, both for possession of marijuana, and he eventually flees to Mexico in the bus with the Pranksters. Another charge hits him (resisting arrest) and some trials follow.
The end of the book chronicles the Pranksters fleeing to Mexico where they try to stage Kesey's death to get him out of the public eye (which obviously fails). Then the trials quickly follow, and then Wolfe gives us some input on what happens to the Pranksters after the gig is up, after Kesey is sentences to 90 days and jail and working on a farm.
Kesey agreed to the police that he was going to announce to young adults that they shouldn't take drugs anymore. He hosted an Acid Test Graduation, where he rented out a warehouse and invited everyone from before. It was an intense last hurrah. He stated that individuals needed to try to have acidic experiences without actually getting high. This pissed some people off, but was it a prank all in the end...?
Even though I found it challenging to read, the plot was really interesting. It's insane to me that people could have lived this way. Just crazy. I don't understand the funding, or how this even could have happened. I know the times were different, but I just can't see this kind of thing happening today. It blows my mind. I couldn't have imagined being around at this time. How scary and exciting.
If there's anyone out there who understood the text better than I could, I would appreciate more synopsis and details if I've missed anything. Or maybe I had some misconceptions. I'm pretty sure about what I have down here. Other stuff I am omitting is probably because I am weary on the details. I would appreciate feedback on the plot of this book.
So, what did you think of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?