The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Acid On The Brain

‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test‘ is a Day-Glo illumination of an intoxicating episode of the buzzing 60s counter culture. Framed by the rise of the New Left and consciousness altering entheogens. The book tells the story of Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters, from their Technicolor road trip across America to the acrid after taste of their Manzanillo hangovers. Pursued by FBI men in black shiny shoes, Kesey leads a band of middle-class bohemians straight through the heart of the American Dream and out the other side…

Guffawing, cackling, snorting and howling along the way. 

Wolfe‘s style is vibrant, subjective and unreliable, indicative of the New Journalism movement that he is heavily associated with. Wolfe highlights the exultant joy, twisted camaraderie and grotesque self-absorption of the Pranksters thin emaciated visages with a biting accuracy akin to Hunter S. Thompson‘s sober caregiver, the designated driver of the Acid Trip. His style is not a sterile secondary recreation of an experience (although it is entertainment). Much like the Acid Tests themselves, it is an immersive and consuming stream of altered consciousness that cannonballs you into the glowing, radiant trip like an intravenous dose of DMT.  

As a historical artefact the book is a subjective tunnel-vision account straight from the burning heart of the acid generation. Framed by the backdrop of Haight-Ashbury, Vietnam and the Psychedelic Revolution. The book highlights the importance of mind-altering molecules in the generational shift of the 60s, as well as the advent of the Acid Test with its sensory assault of entertainment. Multimedia experiences that reverberated through modern art and music for the rest of the century. 

This is primarily Kesey‘s story. The epitome of the American Dream, a high school wrestling champ, a picturesque reflection of all-American achievement. Kesey turns his back on the straight life. Capturing the public imagination with his beatnik game. Hauled up in La Honda, alienated by social games and symbols, like Wittgenstein on a downer, Kesey and the Pranksters take on a newfound religious fervour. Wolfe notes the unease and tension that flows under the current of commune life, hinting at the festering underbelly of the animal. Kesey becomes shrouded by symbols, imagining himself as a psychotomimetic vision of Captain America… or Doctor Strange if you prefer. The Pranksters idolise Kesey, but he‘s on an ego trip, and his game is…


Epitomised by the casualties of going Further.
Stark Naked.  
Kesey‘s wailing children.  

Wolfe‘s book is a cult book: The story of the birth of the Keseian cult of personality. Centred on a proto-hipster Instagram soft boy with ego issues (Kesey is a writer after all), whose power eventually leads to the same pitfalls as the more media savvy Leary. Wrapped up in his own game, Keseys fails to galvanise a way beyond the psychotropic spirituality of acid culture. The counter-culture adopts his ethical beliefs into a societally appropriate framework, a social game – the Kesey game, without realising that Kesey was pushing beyond altered consciousness, beyond politics and war.  Striving for authentic experience and connection at any emotional cost. 

As the Pranksters disperse to their respective self-made beds, Wolfe invites the reader to take one lesson from this cultural moment in defiance of the never-ending lag of consensus reality and consumer perspective. 

Published by Rhys

Twenty-three year old Lit nerd with too much free time.

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