I recently read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, his 1968 book about Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the beginning of America’s acid culture, named for the drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD — the ‘S’ comes from the drug’s original German name). Wolfe’s immersive reporting lets him recreate the events around the beginning of a cultural movement as if he were there, though most of the book happens before his reporting begins. It’s intimate writing, helped along by a cast of charismatic characters who are all the more absorbing for being real. I got interested in several of them and found other pieces about them, which seemed to confirm the power of their personalities (Stewart Brand is a minor character in the book, which says something about the kind of people who are its focus).
Every Wolfe non-fiction work that I’ve read focuses on Us vs. Them relationships. His early magazine pieces, collected in the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, did things like explain the hot rod modders of California (perhaps the first industrial hackers and crowdsourcers) versus the Detroit the rest of us knew about. Almost all the essays take some part of U.S. culture as defined by Madison Avenue and the East Coast elites, of which Wolfe was decidedly one, and contrast it with people in the rest of the country, thosepoorunenlightenedslobscanyoubelievehowtheylive? The Right Stuff investigates who ascends the ziggurat of the Air Force pilot culture and who does not. In Wolfe’s hands this process of ascension becomes a metaphor for the myth of America, where getting to the top of your field has less to do with hard work and talent and more to do with some innate quality. From Our House to Bauhaus pits Le Corbusier and his architectural acolytes against more traditional (and eye-pleasing) styles. In the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, you’re either on the bus with Kesey and the Pranksters, or you’re off the bus.
It’s a stark view of America, one that mocks the idea of a melting pot land of opportunity. We are not some polyglot fondue, Wolfe seems to say, we are fundamentalists trying to obliterate any opponent we cannot convert to our way of thinking. It feels more true today than it did to me in the 1970s and 1980s; perhaps I am less naive now, or perhaps Wolfe was onto something about American culture before it started to appear in the statistics.
Besides being an incredible piece of reporting, Wolfe employs an astonishing amalgam of narrative devices, including near schizophrenic shifts in the point of view, paranoid punctuation and in multiple cases poetry (well, doggerel). His stylistic experiments are in their way as radical as those of Dos Passos in the U.S.A. Trilogy. You can see why Wolfe was so widely influential — it’s fun to read and feels effortless.
It isn’t just a period piece, either, about a bunch of semi-memorable people with quaint ideas. The Pranksters and their culture feel like a proto-Internet tribe. They are a meme, with odd personalities that emerge as famous for being famous, an early reality series. Kesey was, of course, a well-known novelist, but he is also a savant bumpkin farm boy wrestler whose best-selling novels defy the sensibilities of the literary establishment. And then he throws away the novel for film. He and the Pranksters become precursors of YouTube celebrities. They film everything they do, everyone they encounter (a big reason why Wolfe can recreate things so well is that a lot of it was on film). They alter their senses through technology (drug technology, not immersive applications and hardware, but it’s the same idea). The acid tests themselves are proto flash mobs. And we see the comic book superhero treated as American mythic creation, well before Hollywood’s comic book fetish and novels like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Many of the things we bemoan in youth culture today were there nearly 50 years ago.
I’ve thought for some time there should be a Nobel Prize for Literature should go again to a nonfiction writer, though I may not say it as well as this New Yorker piece.