Monday, November 26, 2012


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1968, 432 pp

After finishing Back to Blood, I felt curious about Tom Wolfe's beginnings. My beginning with Tom Wolfe was reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1969. I married my first husband in April of that year and we set out on our "honeymoon" which was really a glorified road trip across the country from Ann Arbor to San Francisco, inspired by Kerouac's On the Road. We camped the whole way, intending to end up as teachers in a "free school" in San Fran. 

Reading Acid Test was our preparation, our Rick Steves. We were among the hippest drug-taking heads in Ann Arbor but wanted to be sure we were cool enough for Haight Ashbury. As it turned out, I was most assuredly not.

Reading the book again some forty years later was actually a fabulous experience (fabulous meaning "resembling a fable; of an incredible, astonishing or exaggerated nature" (Webster's dictionary.) It recaptured for me the entire mindset we had at the time: the mistrust and disgust we had for middle class values and morality; the disregard for authority and cops and the war in Vietnam; the pure hatred for the military industrial complex; the willingness to ingest any drug; the utter trust and camaraderie we had with all hippies.

Wolfe was already an engaging writer. Acid Test is nonfiction but reads like a novel. I recognized in Ken Kesey the birth of the quintessential Wolfe hero: a guy who drops out of his respected role in society and becomes a desperate, sometimes failing, often wanted man, spurred on by a vision and a quest for meaning. I wonder if Tom Wolfe had ingested Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces, another seminal text for literate hippies, which was curiously reissued in 1968.

Weird side note: In Back to Blood, the main protagonist Nestor Comacho, pulls himself up a rope, hand over hand, without using his feet, in his first manic feat of the novel. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (on page 385 in the original hardcover Book Club edition I got from the library) Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters plan a similar manic feat. By this time Kesey is wanted, jail-bait in fact, for numerous drug busts, so they are planning the Acid Test of all time at Winterland in San Francisco. All the cops will be there checking out all the stoned people and looking for Kesey. At midnight on Halloween, "Kesey, masked and disguised in a Superhero costume...will come up on stage and deliver his vision of the future, of the way 'beyond acid.' Who is this apocalyptic--Then he will will rip off his mask--Why-it's Ken Kee-zee!-and as the law rushes for him, he will leap up on a rope hanging down from the roof at center stage and climb, hand over hand, without even using his legs, his cape flying, straight up, up, up, up through a trap door in the roof, to where Babbs will be waiting with a helicopter,...and they will ascend into the California ozone looking down one last time..."

That was the current fantasy for the day. Either you were on the bus or off the bus. Did it happen? No spoilers here. I'm just saying that Wolfe felt the need to use the prank again 44 years later.


(The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is available in paperback or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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