Friday, July 24, 2015

'Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' Redux

Genius! Yes! Tom Wolfe, that is. No, not the Look Homeward Angel scribbler, the Man in the White Suit who wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. The snap-crackle-pop firehose verbal virtuosity of said book clearly wins the title. Oh, yeah. The man's prose style is right up there with Harlan Ellison's machinegun patter, yes, or Pynchon's paranoid patois, oh yes, or Joyce's gibberish, for that, matter, yes, I say, yes ...

OK, OK, enough with the Wolfe pastiche.

My point being: Based on the evidence of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Man in the White Suit really is a genius. (In case you missed it at Vacation Bible School, it's the true-life tale of novelist and acid guru Ken Kesey, his band of Merry Pranksters, and their noble but futile attempt to liberate tightass American culture with the power of art, music and lysergic acid diethylamide in the 1960s.) A tale told in the frenetic style aped above.

Wolfe's white-hot words grabbed me when I was 17. Re-reading it age, uh, the age I'm at now, I can truly see the brilliance behind it. His style is a distillation/rip-off of Jack Kerouac, with the distinction that -- beneath the flash and filigree -- there's a well-engineered structure holding it all up. To put it another way: Kerouac popped a few bennies and wailed at the typewriter. Wolfe can actually write.

The obvious observation: Like the rest of the "New Journalists," Wolfe used novelistic techniques on fact-based reporting. The difference being, he was exceedingly good at it. (Better than the rest, I'd say -- with the possible exception of Hunter S. Thompson.)

Acid Test starts with Wolfe as the odd man out catching a ride in a truck with a gaggle of hippies, Pranksters and freaks in San Francisco circa 1966. They head off to the ruins of a former pie factory to await Kesey's release from jail. Along the way, Wolfe fills us in on Kesey's backstory -- his flight to Mexico, ignominious return and capture, and Wolfe's ten-minute jailhouse interview with Kesey. (We learn that Kesey is planning an "Acid Graduation Ceremony" -- and the Haight-Ashbury heads ain't so happy about it.) Wolfe's three-day wait in the pie palace becomes an excuse for vignettes about various freaky characters. Then Kesey shows up.

From there, Wolfe doubles back to the Kesey's origins as a "diamond in the rough" Jack London-ish writer, his adoption by the Perry Lane boho scene, his breakthrough, courtesy a government experiment testing LSD-25, his sacramental distribution of said chemical and break with the old-school beats, the big splash of One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest, the birth of the Merry Pranksters and Kesey's California compound.

That sets up the heart of the book: the odyssey of the acid-stoked Pranksters across the repressed USA of 1964 in the psychedelically emblazoned FURTHUR bus -- a Whitmanesque barbaric yawp, if ever there was one. There are fine moments, bad scenes and collateral damage. The trip's end sets up Kesey's motive to end all trips. (Or start the graduate-level NEXT trip, after passing the final Acid Test.) That takes us to the bittersweet Acid Graduation Ceremony on Oct 31, 1966. (Halloween, yet.) And we're done.

Wolfe seems to meander, but he doesn't. Listen, bub. Like I said, the man's hiding some hardass, nailed-down, no-shit structure beneath his apparently random river of prose. Wolfe hides himself, too. Except for a few framing scenes, he's not there. The absent author tells his tale through the subjectivity of various characters -- Neal Cassady, Mountain Girl, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, etc. The impressionistic verbal stream gives you a feeling of what it was like to be in the Prankster subculture -- of what it was like to be there. More than that: what it was like to be somebody there. No easy task.

How'd he do it? Evidently, Wolfe hung out with the Pranksters for extended periods of time. And the man knows shorthand. I figured he transcribed reams and reams of anecdotes and recollections, then distilled the jottings to a stream-of-consciousness narrative from various perspectives. But Wolfe conceals his own perspective. He's as conservative as they come, but his opinions on drugs aren't in these pages. No judgment. But it feels like life.

And that's genius.


2 comments:

Daniel McNicol said...

Enjoyed the review Marty. These times and these writers deserve a new, honest and informed retrospective and you have done some justice here.

Marty Fugate said...

Thanks, Daniel! Time permitting I'm going to revisit the tomes that warped my mind. "Catch-22," "Gravity's Rainbow," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," and, of course, "Slaughterhouse V."