Friday, January 10, 2014

Review of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

I give this non-fiction book about the brilliant author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the early day of the hippies, four stars and here's why:

In most areas of my life I am organized. That is not the case when it comes to my reading pattern. It is rather chaotic. I'm not one of those people who sit down at the beginning of the year, line up the books I am going to read in a corner of the bookshelf, and start reading them in order. I usually have a general idea of the book I want to read next and despite my best laid plans, if I like the book in hand it inevitably leads me on to some other book I am unfamiliar with as I follow the trail through the literary forest until I step off a cliff or the trail comes to a dead end and I have to follow the bookmarks that I dropped along the way to lead me back out of the forest. And The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is no exception.

What made me follow the trail of this nonfiction book with the bombastic title when I rarely read nonfiction? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--one of my favorite books of the twentieth century--is to blame. So it was a bird that I followed into the forest. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 2013 after seeing the movie of the same name a decade earlier. You can read my review here ( ). When I finished I wanted to learn more about the high-artist (no pun intended) named Ken Kesey------

------the straight-laced Stanford student who showed up one day at a government funded LSD experiment to earn $25 and ended up promoting the drug like no other in the fledgling days of the hippies. Ken Kesey decides to paint a school bus in Day-Glo colors and drive it across country with his merry band of pranksters. That's where Tom Wolfe  comes in. The (pre-novelist) journalist followed those merry band of pranksters on their trip and recorded their adventures in in the 1968 book: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Why the crazy title? Well you will have to read the book. But what is not to like about the title?

And speaking of crazy, the slapdash way Tom Wolfe writes in the book gives one the early impression that he is trying to capture the frenetic, drug fueled pace of the pranksters, which he verifies with an author's note at the end. He does a fine job of it, too. At times, however, he sacrifices clarity to accomplish this. New people pop in and out of scenes, never to be heard from again. There is often little setup to events that happen in the book. Poooooooof! Zaaaaamoooooo! Kablaaaaam! People come and go. Drug busts. Misery. Ecstasy. All on the same page. The bus rolls on in a Day-Glo sheen. The drugs flow. Tie-dye is invented and the hippie generation is ushered in thanks to Ken Kesey and his merry band of pranksters.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a pure rush of literary adrenaline by a journalist in full command of the English language and every crazy symbol found on the ASCII keyboard as if there is no shortage of how many colons can be strung together even though we know that the colon is an endangered species in the English language. Why? Because Tom  Wolfe used most of them in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The book is recommended as it is part of America's culture in the sixties and so is the movie Ken Kesey and the pranksters filmed of the bus tour--The Magic Trip. I am watching it now. But what I am enjoying most are Ken Kesey's interesting comments about the making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, not the least of which is that he wrote the first pages high on peyote. And we all know how Edgar Allan Poe and other early literary pioneers have been portrayed for taking hallucinogenics. Let's hope the general perception turns out better for Ken Kesey as time passes.

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