The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – Book Discussion

Welcome to our Online Book Discussion!  This June we will be featuring The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

Join Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they drive across the country in a DayGlo painted school bus, reaching for personal and collective revelations through the use of psychedelic drugs. The book covers their cross country road trip, as well as Acid Tests, early performances by The Grateful Dead, and Kesey’s escape to Mexico.

Learn More about this Book!

Reserve the book @ Salinas Public Library.

For openers, here are a few discussion questions:

  • This book has been in print now continuously for forty years, what is its popular appeal?  Haven’t things changed?
  • Using techniques originally described as New Journalism, Tom Wolfe attempted to capture a more complete description of his subject.  But did he succeed?
  • When we think of the sixties now how much of our judgment is clouded by this book?
  • And how much of this really happened?

These discussion questions are just a starting point. Please submit your responses in the “comments” area below.

Thanks for your participation!  And don’t forget that the posts will be continued AFTER June until the close of our centennial celebrations.  It’s never too late to contribute!

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22 Responses to “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – Book Discussion”

  1. Anthony Lacono Says:

    FIRST THINGS FIRST. If you look closely at the cover of the most recent edition of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the one pictured above, you will see that the name on the bus — that is to say, its destination — is “Further.” You have to read the book to find out it was actually spelled “Furthur” and that they, like, did this on purpose. So right from the get-go then, the cover of the book, for Pete’s Sake, we have a major disconnect between society’s cultural artifacts (books, book covers, signs on buses) and the people portrayed in them. Poetic justice? AWL

    • salinasstories Says:

      Considering the times I think it’s a wonder that it came out at all!

    • Samurai Bibliographer Says:

      Wouldn’t it be great to have been in the meeting at Picador when this oversight was discovered? “So tell me, WHO was it that gave final approval for the cover art? Don’t you people check your sources? HOW many copies are already printed? Do you think anyone will NOTICE?”

      • salinasstories Says:

        I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall there. Looking forward to exploring the issues here!

    • salinasstories Says:

      THIS JUST IN. Did we say they are making this book into a movie? Well, they are. At this point all we know about it is the director, Gus Van Sant (Milk, 2008) and the writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk, 2008). The release date was first given as September 2009, but, hey, that’s just around the corner. Our suggestion is to READ THE BOOK FIRST and kill the surprise factor once and for all. Oh, and keep an eye out for the trailers, to make sure they get the spelling right on the bus, so to speak.

  2. Samurai Bibliographer Says:

    Tom Wolfe’s book was first published in 1968 and covers events up to four or five years prior to then. By the time the book came out the hippie movement was already a recognizable part of the popular culture. This was also about the time Jerry Rubin said, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” and that statement stuck. The line in the sand, so to speak, was drawn. The “don’t trust” age kept getting higher and higher as these people got older, but the generation gap was there all the same. The emphasis from that time forward will be on the YOUTH. The book came out because it had to.

  3. Anthony Lacono Says:

    NEW JOURNALISM. Tom Wolfe really did his homework for the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as he readily admits in his “Author’s Note” after the “Epilogue.” When I first read this book in the early seventies it never occurred to me that he never actually rode on the bus. After all, Hunter Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels so he could tell his story about them from first-hand experience. And this is what you did for New Journalism, you rode with the pack so you would know. At the time, it made sense: Hunter rides with the Angels, Tom rides the bus. Now, of course, I am beginning to have some doubts. In the coming weeks, some of the issues that spring from these doubts will be revealed–or at least explored. Hang on tight, it gets bumpy. AWL

  4. Anthony Lacono Says:

    ON THE BUS. This is the phrase Wolfe uses to describe the degree of commitment experienced by the Merry Pranksters, ie, another version of “if you are not with us, you are against us.” A chapter (number 11, if you’re counting) is devoted to the notion of the “unspoken thing” which amounts to a communal identity fed and fueled by LSD and quasi religious experiences. Without actually coming right out and saying it, Ken Kesey demands a lot from these people because this is no ordinary bus. Painted in most of the colors of the rainbow and “wired for sound” the vehicle creates a sensation wherever it goes. From the front you see the destination: “Furthur” and from the back the cargo: “Weird Load Ahead.” AWL

    • Anthony Lacono Says:

      ON THE ROAD. In terms of the underground American culture that emerged in the fifties, Wolfe makes an important connection between the beatnik era and the about to erupt hippie era via Neal Cassady, described by novelist Robert Stone as “the world’s greatest driver, who could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon” (Thank you, Wikipedia). For Jack Kerouac and the beats of the fifties, having Cassady at the wheel meant racing back and forth across the US chasing or outrunning “life.” For the heads of the sixties, Cassady is still a spaced-out and speeding pilot, but is also seen endlessly flipping a short-handled sledge hammer and rattling off a constant monologue, you understand, “spinning off memories, metaphors, literary, Oriental, hip allusions…” (p.15). AWL

  5. Samurai Bibliographer Says:

    How about a little note on the text? I think we can safely say that Lacono is using the edition of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test currently in print. That would be Picador (registered trademark of Farrar, Straus and Giroux), c1968. I think I heard him say that his original copy of the book was loaned to one his kids, which means that it is now making its way around the underground Indie circuit and presumably being read, if not understood, by a whole new generation of punk rockers and troublemakers. All page numbers evidently refer to that edition. He has already said something mean about the cover. It can only get worse.

  6. Anthony Lacono Says:

    WHITMANESQUE CATALOGS. It is now time to abandon the Twitter-length entries that have characterized this discussion so far and get down to some serious literary analysis and lengthy quotations from the text. Hang on, people, it’s a long and winding road ahead.
    One of the more effective rhetorical, not to say poetic, devices that Wolfe employs throughout this book is the extended list or catalog used to describe people, things, events. The major progenitor and precursor of the technique is, of course, Walt Whitman. Quoted below are three examples from Leaves of Grass that show the inclusiveness of his lists and illustrate the rhythmic almost hypnotic quality of incantation they can generate. Reading these catalogs we encounter thing after thing after thing and are essentially bombarded with an unremitting cascade of images. It is, indeed, a poetic version of cinematic montage. “Land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar, rice! / Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of the apple and the grape! / Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world! land of those sweet-air’d interminable plateaus!” (Starting from Paumanok, 14). “I see a great round wonder rolling through space, / I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories, / palaces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads / upon the surface” (Salut au Monde, 4). “The axe leaps! / The solid forest gives fluid utterances, / they tumble forth, they rise and form, / hut, tent, landing, survey, / Flail, plough, pick, crowbar, spade, / Shingle, rail, prop, wainscot, jamb, lath, panel, gable” (Song of the Broad-Axe, 9). Are you reading these aloud? You probably should. You may have to in order to savor the rich robust quality of their rhythmic and melodic development. At any rate, Wolfe produces a similar range of effects using a similar technique throughout his account and I have quoted some of the best ones here. I could have just listed the page numbers, but, no, they are quoted at length. Enjoy. “The cops now know the whole scene, even the costumes, the jesuschrist strung-out hair, Indian beads, Indian headbands, donkey beads, temple bells, amulets, mandalas, god’s-eyes, fluorescent vests, unicorn horns, Errol Flynn dueling shirts” (p.3). “…in this improbably ex-pie factory Warehouse garage I am in the midst of Tsong-Isha-pa and the sangha communion, Mani and the wan persecuted at The Gate, Zoroaster, Maidhyoimaonga and the five faithful before Vishtapu, Mohammed and Abu Bekr, Gautama and the brethren in the wilderness” (p.30). “Then he looks back into the mirror — and the flames shoot up again, soaring, corn and lespedeza turning brown like burning color film when the projector is too hot and bursting into flames, corn, wheat, lespedeza turning into brown scouring rush, death camass, bloodwort, wild iris, blue flag, grease wood, poison sucklyea, monkshood mandrake, moonseed, fitweed, locoweed, tumble mustard, spurge nettle…” (p.110). “Everybody went forth and hauled in all their stuff, out to the bedrooms, tents, Kampers, sleeping bags, the bus, and brought in a ragamuffin mountain of clothes, shoes, boots, toys, paint pots, toothbrushes, books, boxes, capsules, stashes, letters, litter, junk” (p.116). “Lee Quarnstrom, of the outer circle, showed up with a huge supply of Army insignia, shoulder patches, hashmarks, bars, stars, epaulets” (p.218). “glittering Angel esoterica, chains, Iron Crosses, knives, buttons, coins, keys, wrenches, spark plugs” (p.244). “he [Owsley Stanley] started buying the [Grateful] Dead equipment…all manner of tuners, amplifiers, receivers, loudspeakers, microphones, cartridges, tapes, theater horns, booms, lights, turntables, instruments, mixers, muters, servile mesochroics, whatever was on the market” (p.251). “A confetti of skulls…not one inch of it is picturesque burros and shawls or nova Zapata hats or color-TV pink chunks of watermelon or water lilies or gold feathers or long eyelashes or high combs or tortillas and tacos and chili powder or fluty camote vendors or muletas or toreros or oles or mariachi or water lilies” (p.290). “…all the drive-ins, mobile-home parks, Dairy Queens, superettes, Sunset Strips, auto-accessory stores, septic-tank developments, souvenir shops, snack bars, lay-away furniture stores, Daveniter living rooms, hot-plate hotels, bus-station paperback racks, luncheonette in-the-booth jukebox slots” (p.292). “but this is the real-life jungle, Major. Two-winged flies, dapplewing Anapholes, Culex tarsalis, verruga-crazed Phlebotomus biting 8-day fever and Oriental sores, greenhead rabbit-fever horseflies, tularemic Loa loa, testse mites, Mexican fleas, chinches, chiggers, velvet ants” (p.303). “Their faces are painted in Art Nouveau swirls, their Napoleon hats are painted, masks painted, hair dyed weird, embroidered Chinese pajamas, dresses made out of American flags, Flash Gordon diaphanous polyethylene, supermarket Saran Wrap, India-print coverlets shawls Cossack coats sleeveless fur coats piping frogging Bourbon hash embroidery serapes sarongs saris headbands bows batons vests frock coats clerical magisterial scholar’s robes stripes strips flaps thongs Hookah boots harem boots Mexicali boots Durango boots elf boots Knight boots Mod boots Day-Glo Wellingtons Flagellation boots beads medallions amulets totems” (p.391). Oh, my goodness. One way to truly appreciate this production is to wallow in the musicality of the overabundant labyrinthine details of the text. As mentioned earlier, Wolfe really did his homework and evidently found a way to pack everything he learned into the final package. Hello, Walt Whitman. AWL

  7. Anthony Lacono Says:

    ELECTRIC KOOL-AID. There should be no doubt as to what exactly is being referred to in this taut little phrase: the main propellant in the skyrocket discovery trips made by Ken Kesey and the Merry pranksters, namely, LSD. More than once, Wolfe drops the hint that this one little compound had the power to set off a chain reaction that would essentially change the course of American history in the sixties. In the early part of that decade we were zooming down the track towards a head-on collision with the issues of racism and economic reform. After LSD arrived on the scene, we were now zooming down another track entirely. Simple as that. But, instead of launching into a full-scale socio-politico-economic treatise on the multifarious ramifications of this subject, let us zero in on the phrase itself. ELECTRIC, that is, immediate, instantaneous, powerful, bringer of light, heater of coils everywhere, glowing in the dark, forceful energetic surge, and all of these qualities combined at once and wrapped up into a single dynamite adjective. KOOL-AID, that is, a man-made substitute for a natural product, sweeter and more colorful, more convenvient, and with more nicknames than anything you can find in nature due to its highly refined and concentrated state made possible by advanced technological and laboratory processes, and covered by a patent. Electric Kool-Aid, whoa, hot stuff. AWL

  8. Anthony Lacono Says:

    ACID TEST. According to Wolfe, Ken Kesey came up with the idea of widespread group consumption of LSD in public places as a natural development and progression away from more conventional social dynamics and interaction: “Everybody would take acid, anytime they wanted…at whatever point in the trip they wanted to enter the new planet. In any event, they would be on a new planet” (p.233). He also came up with the cutesy title “acid test.” Let us once again zero in on the phrase. The original meaning of “acid test” comes from the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century, where it was necessary to determine whether or not gleaming gold-colored metal was actually gold. The simplest, most direct and conclusive test to be found at the time was to place a drop of strong (usually nitric) acid on the metallic substance and see what happened. If the metal started to fizz or otherwise react to the acid, it wasn’t gold. If nothing happened, it was. The consequence of this type of test, then, was that the imposter (not gold) would be destroyed, whereas the real thing (gold) would remain unaffected, ie, still pure. Over the years, the phrase “acid test” came to mean tests of character or authenticity without the notion of destruction of imitations. And this is the sense, the less toxic connotation, that Kesey had in mind. But as Wolfe’s account progresses, there are little crumbs of evidence left in the pathway that the original meaning might also apply, though perhaps not as intended, or hoped for, by Kesey. As we now know, there were some casualties that arose from people taking LSD inappropriately and any number of “bad trips” that ended in death. It was indeed possible to be burned by acid tests. Add a little “juice” to the mix and you could really get burned. AWL

  9. Samurai Bibliographer Says:

    Hey, it’s quibble time! I remember reading this book on or about the time it first came out and thinking, “Oh, wow, Tom Wolfe! You really captured the flavor and temper of the times! All those things happening, so much to ponder, so much to consider…” EXCEPT for one little detail that I noticed then and that has been bothering me ever since. Now that there is a discussion going on I feel as if I can no longer hold back the complaint. Thus, the following quote comes from Wolfe’s description of the Hell’s Angels and the Merry Pranksters “working together” to make the bus ready for the Vietnam Day Committee rally in Berkeley: “Gut was in a kind of transition period, between the Angels and the Pranksters. He had his old Hell’s Angels sleeveless denim jacket on, but he had taken the insignia off, the lettering and the emblem of a skull with a helmet on, but you could see where it had all been, because the denim was lighter underneath. It was what you might call a goodbye-but-not-forgotten Hell’s Angels’ jacket” (p.218). “The denim was lighter underneath” ??????? What ?????? Wrong, wrong, wrong! This never happens. This visual phenomenon as presently expressed flies full force into the face of Levi Strauss physics. If you have ever ripped the back pocket off an old pair of jeans or ever removed the “leather” patch from the waistband of a genuine pair of Levi’s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You rip off the patch, the denim underneath is darker. Always. Even if “Gut” never washed his sleeveless denim jacket, and there is ample reason to believe he never would, the sun damage alone would be enough to bleach it out, EXCEPT, of course, for the portion of the fabric covered by the emblem. Come on, Tom, don’t make me go back over this book line by line to find all of the little tiny details, not to mention some big ones, that are exactly wrong! That are backwards, misconstrued, mistaken, wrongly perceived, totally misunderstood! Don’t tell me that you, a fellow who wears a white suit and a silk tie, can accurately and truthfully write about and portray people who wear every other color of the rainbow, sometimes all at once, or, in certain circumstances, nothing at all. Eyewitness? Accurate reporting? The denim was lighter underneath, indeed.

  10. Wondergirl Says:

    Taken for what it is, this is a very entertaining read. Yes, there are mistakes made under poetic license. Yes, it has been dramatized. Yes, denim is darker when kept covered with patches. I don’t think the people portrayed in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test would have cared about those details like we do today. The fact that we quibble about such things is proof of just how far removed we are from that place in time. Sadly, the innocence/naivete’ has been lost and we are that much “furthur” from the truth Kesey was trying to get at.

  11. Samurai Bibliographer Says:

    What part of “wrong, wrong, wrong” do people not understand? This is a detail that is really difficult to get past. How can you trust a narrator whose message back from the front directly contradicts everyone else’s? That is, 180 degrees out of touch with reality? The “truth” that Kesey was trying to get at was certainly not the same “truth” that was reported by Wolfe. Now, I’m beginning to wonder where the distortion crept in.

  12. Anthony Lacono Says:

    POLITICS AS UNUSUAL. According to Wolfe’s acute observation and yet steadfast refusal to comment, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters did not involve themselves with politics. Both as a collective and as a travelling circus, they saw themselves as laying the groundwork for social revolution, setting up the paradigmatic shift, overturning the taciturn and self-satisfied world view of middle America by sharing with anyone and everyone their cosmic insights and glimpses of universal togetherness provided by the consumption of vast amounts of LSD and other high-powered mind-altering drugs. Politics was simply not an issue. This was, however, the early sixties, and it must be pointed out that politics, the political arena itself, was very much an issue. At every turn. Let me just add that the year before, on the steps of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley Campus, Mario Savio uttered the following inspired and inspiring words in behalf of the Free Speech Movement: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop!” (December 2, 1964). This attitude, this approach is more like what the disaffected youth were experiencing. And politics was very much at the center. It is in this context, then, that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters paid a visit to the Vietnam Day Committee rally at UC Berkeley (covered in Chapter 16, if you’re still counting) on October 15, 1965. As Wolfe recounts the episode, Kesey and his Crewe come rolling up to the rally (where else but at Sproul Plaza?) and begin to horse around in usual Prankster fashion. When Kesey gets up to speak, he was invited as the next-to-last, before a crowd of some 15,000 preparing themselves for a march all the way to the Oakland Army Terminal in protest of the Vietnam War, he breaks out his harmonica and profers up a downhome psychedelic version of “Home on the Range.” His advice to the crowd? “F-word it!” (Well, Wolfe was much more literal and accurate, but this is a G-Rated blog and we have to be careful. You get the idea.) The overall effect of the Merry Pranksters arrival on the scene, then, was to let the air out of the tires of the vehicle that was about to lumber into action in opposition to the emerging war effort. The reverberations should have been felt throughout the country. Kesey’s objection was to the speaker who preceeded him, Paul Jacobs, who “looks like Mussolini” (p.221-222). Of course he did. Jacobs was energizing the crowd, getting people emotionally ready to place their health and well-being in jeopardy not to say danger in order to express their objections to a dubious military action in a far-away place that would ultimately shake the US to its moral core. And to run these objections up against 400 armed and helmeted Oakland police. By this time in the book, Kesey has already experienced valuable lessons in power and leadership, including crowd control. Wolfe remains silent on the significance of the “prank” that was played here and the implications for political involvement. Instead he closes the chapter and gives us an ironic parting vision of Country Joe and the Fish, who were serenading the post-march crowd when tear gas was thrown into the mix and the band members couldn’t move, symbolizing the success thus far: “the jug band just stood there, petrified, with their hands and their instruments frozen” (p.226). So much for politics. AWL

  13. Wondergirl Says:

    180 degrees out of touch with reality…who’s reality? This is a fictional piece based on one person’s experience. We are all “flawed” in that we can only report our perception of reality. If the person writing the book happens to be creative, like Wolfe is, the story is bound to be as colorful as Kesey’s bus. Contradictions will abound, but they don’t take away, at least for me, the artistic merit of this book.

    Anthony Lacono, you’re doing a wonderful job here! Keep the commentaries coming…

    • Anthony Lacono Says:

      Thank you for your kind words. I have to agree that the artistic merit of this book is quite high. I seem to remember making a big deal about the poetic devices Wolfe uses. Not to mention the heavy-weight company he kept while using them. But I wonder if I will ever be able to get past that patch of lighter denim? It brings to mind the notion of a fly in the ointment. The whole jar of ointment isn’t spoiled just because there’s a fly in it. That little part where the fly is entrapped is where the spoilage is. Or is it? AWL

  14. Anthony S. Says:

    I didn’t want to read this book until two years ago. The internal experiences of tripping had always felt too intimate to entrust to an outside narrator wearing a sparkling white suit who cashed in big time.

    But now I can read it from the detached viewpoint of several decades, and I found the book well written, much fun, and educational too. The early history of LSD is fascinating. But Kesey’s s “Are you on the bus or are you not?” mentality now can be seen as half messianic and half tyrannical. You decide. But back then some people just weren’t “good enough” for the bus, and if they got lost, went mad, or died didn’t really matter to Kesey, because he was on a mission. I see him in part as a master manipulator of lesser peoples’ behavior. So of course the bus had to crash.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for everyone’s great comments, and for Anthony L’s excellent work on this.

  15. Samurai Bibliographer Says:

    You know what’s really weird about this book? Wolfe did a lot of homework and interviewed a lot of people but didn’t ever actually get on the bus. Yet he was able to convey the spirit of the time AND still withhold judgment. There were several chilling incidents, especially with the Hell’s Angels, where he “just reported the facts.” I’ve already raised enough questions about what were facts, but now we’re talking about attitude.

  16. gt Says:

    That would attest to Wolfe’s vast imaginative abilities. To be able to do the research, take in the different perspectives as seen thru the various filters of those who were on the scene, and cogitate it together into a dynamic, even riveting account that actually seems first hand is exhibit A when discussing his capability as a writer. To be there without actually being there, so to speak, and then to relate that account to someone else who can, if open to it, dig the story in near first-hand experiential terms.

    Just let yourself go, and get on The Bus! It’s time to go Further!


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