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on February 10, 2006
I love this book, it is an amazing story and an amazing picture of the time and people it depicts. Reading it creates a great idea of the culture and era of the 1960's hippies, it is filled with characters including the Grateful Dead, Hell's Angels, Beatniks, Timothy Leary, the Beatles, and the central characters... Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
Ken Kesey (authour of the excellent book "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") put together a group of adventurous people who took an infamous road trip through America, in a psychedelically painted bus and lots and lots and lots of LSD. They filmed the entire trip (which then influenced the Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour" film), and met a lot of amazing people along the way.
The book "Acid Dreams: the CIA, LSD and the Sixties" (also excellent) has a section on Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, which really nicely sums up what is so appealing about these self-proclaimed freaks. While lots of stuffy academics led by Timothy Leary were taking acid and walking around with clipboards, taking notes about their psychological states and writing relatively technical manuals on how to reach enlightenment... Kesey and his group gave a new dimension to acid tripping. They were "regular" people (i.e.- not stuffy academics) who had a lot of fun and approached acid and life without rules, regulations, or expectations and they took acid on the street rather than in clinical settings with clipboards. On the way they had a lot of fun, and Tom Wolfe does an amazing job spinning it into this book. Reading it gives an excellent look into who did what when and where, so it gives a great introduction to the many characters that lived in this period, but the book would be even more fun for people already familiar with the characters in the book. The great charm of this story is that it depicts real people, many of them underground anti-heroes, but the story reads like an excellent novel. Amazing!
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on October 19, 2003
Tom Wolfe follows Ken Kesey's magic bus across America in one of the best road books of the modern era. He captures the era in all its crazy, kinetic glory, from the acid tests in Haight-Ashbury to the final descent upon Timothy O'Leary's inner sanctum in New York. But, the Merry Pranksters were out of their element in the tightly controled world of the LSD guru. The Pranksters' world was a mad-cap adventure, following on the heels of Jack Kerouac with Neal Cassady at the wheel of the bus.
The book gives you all the sordid details of the acid tests which launched the psychedelic world in San Francisco in the 60's. Wolfe provides wonderful word-images of these parties that revolved around the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Kesey emerges as the leading figure of this counter culture, when LSD was still legal. However, his feel-good notion of this hallucinatory drug comes into sharp contrast with O'Leary's transcendental notions.
Along the way, the Merry Pranksters meet Larry McMurtry and other interesting figures of the time, as the bus skirts the lower half of the United States before making its away north to New York. Kesey also has a brief visit with a down-and-out Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road had inspired this adventure, but Kerouac was having none of the Pranksters, much to their chagrin.
Wolfe highlights the difference between the East Coast and the West Coast when it came to LSD. Obviously, his affinity was for the West Coast as he captures this tale in all its wonderful mixed-up glory, making for a thoroughly enjoyable read!
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on May 18, 2003
Trying to sum up The Electric Kool-Acid Test. By Tom Wolfe, in one word is impossible. So I won't try. This enticing piece of literary journalism dives into the counter-cultural upheavals that were the 60's. It follows Ken Kesey and his merry band of pranksters as they travel across the United States, and parts of Mexico, spreading self-awareness, as well as a good deal of hallucinogenic drugs. Their efforts were aimed to shake the roots of conformist, consumerist society to its core and understand the purpose of human existence along the way. In effect "transcending the bull****", that is a stereotypical existence. They were a group devoted to the "here and now" and. Along the path they meet with the likes of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Thomas Leary, and the police. This book details their journey, it drags you through the ocean of this decade and pulls you out, wet, but better informed about what lies at the bottom of the sea.
Some contend that this is a muddled account of the era, one with too many characters and not enough plot, that the details are superfluous and that in the end it fails to convey the true spirit of the times. Sadly, they are wrong.
This diary of history is outstanding not only in literary technique, but also because it recognizes an elemental theme of American culture; change. It is "our strange and haunting paradox in America- that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement", as stated by Tom Wolfe. The Acid Test records these movements and sets them in stone for future generations to look back upon, and expand upon. His insight into sociological trends is wisdom for generations to come. It parallels the counter-cultural movements of the 60's: the Psychedelic movement, the Free love movement, the summer of love, the rebellion of youth against authority and conformity, the beat generation. Here is an essential key to understanding not only the past, but modern American culture as it exists today. The growing sense of independence and uniqueness is still felt by today's generations. Freedom of expression is still a controversial issue. Finding something more in existence and "transcending the bull****" is what so many still strive for today.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe is an essential read simply due to its interesting nature, but also because it shows the basis of American culture as well as its future, change.
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on February 25, 2003
Wow. I really did not realize the social, economical, and cultural importance of the drug acid. Tom Wolfe brilliantly explains how the once legal drug influenced a whole generation of "merry pranksters," expanding their minds and consciousness. "Electric Kool-Aid" describes the travels of the Merry Pranksters (a group of "hippies" on a pilgrimage from Cali to New York) and the colorful characters that join them. From the Hell's Angels to Ginsberg, Wolfe informs the reader of various "acid tests" and how the life of Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady influenced this genre of living. Even the Grateful Dead are included (prior to reading this book, I did not realize that the drug acid also produced the genre of music titled "acid rock").
I would reccommend this book to anyone seeking the thrill of an acid trip without the acid. Wolfe's formal writing aspects deliever a message that perhaps, yes, the 60s was indeed a horror show, mirroring such events as Vietnam and lousy political leaders such as Nixon. Despite all of the chaos, a group of intelligent and charasmatic patrons decided to expand their horizons and indeed imerse themselves in the "Electric Kool Aid Test."
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on December 22, 2002
The dandy and brilliant Tom Wolfe managed to understand what Kesey and his friends were up to and writes about it here in an exhausting style that conveys a mood as little other writing does. If you're interested in the 60's, here it is.
It's easy to get carried away with this book and see it all as lost wonderland, but Wolfe gives us enough information to peek at the cult elements of the Pranksters and how Kesey encouraged that. It's amazing that Wolfe kept his own judgments and reactions out of the writing as well as he did.
The book is thoroughly researched, although now that footage from the film taken by the Pranksters themselves is finally publicly available, certain inaccuraties--and possibilities for different interpretations--are evident. This isn't to fault the book; Wolfe did a remarkable job.
Interactions with the Hells Angels are particularly interesting since one can read about those same episodes from more of an Angel perspective in Hunter Thompson's work.
Some day, maybe the Kesey family will relent and donate the bus to the Smithsonian rather than continuing to let it rot in Oregon, but regardless of what happens to the bus Wolfe has perserved the early 60's with remarkable capacity.
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on September 10, 2002
Let's face it: the Sixties, for better or worse, had a tremendous impact on American culture. Most of it, fortunately, has been good. A large part of Sixties culture was born in and around the San Francisco Bay Area and spread, like ripple on a pond, across the nation and beyond. Wolfe's "New Journalism" coverage of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters drew me in 30-plus years ago and, having re-read the book for the umpteenth time not long ago, it helped remind me how life is too short to be taken too seriously. Sadly, we lost Ken last year, but his spirit lives on in this delightful snapshot of a special time and place. Anyone who reads this will want to read the unofficial but necessary counter-balances that put this book in perspective: Kerouac's "On the Road" and Kesey's own "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And, since a little band called the Warlocks got plucked from playing a pizza parlor and became the house band for the Acid Tests detailed in this book, and that band is mentioned in the book (see Grateful Dead, duh...), it helps to have some Dead music playing in the background to give this great book some atmosphere. The first time I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test I read it non-stop. It drew me in and in the process changed my perspective on life, and forever changed the direction of my life. If you want to know why Haight-Ashbury was just so damn special, this is a good place to begin.
Highly, highly recommended for anyone interested in Sixties culture.
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on November 8, 2001
Regardless of one's ultimate attitudes about the permissive atmosphere that prevailed during the Pandora's Box that became the 1960's, Thomas Wolfe's detailed, passionate and fascinating portrait of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters makes for required reading.
Whether for ill or well, Kesey and the Pranksters are responsible for creating much of what the popular masses call "The 60's". While reading this book, that mere (and ironic) fact becomes ever so clear.
When I recently visited Kesey at his ranch in Oregon, I asked him if Wolfe "got it right". Kesey's response? "Yes he did. But understand that he (Wolfe) gives a real East Coast version of what was essentially a West Coast phenomenon."
What I think that means essentialy validates many of the other positive reviews of this book: Wolfe uncannily possesses the ability to be "in the Pranster's world, but not of it".
This means that while Wolfe is fully willing and able to passionately incorperate the unique linguistic acrobatics of Kesey and the Pranksters in relating the narrative, he maintains somehow a cool, objective distance from all the proceedings. Kesey might be saying that while Wolfe was certainly "on the bus", he was never "ON THE BUS!".
This distance is communicated and maintained by Wolfe's refusal to judge the shennanigans. He never really says "yay" or "nay" to the invention of the "counter culture" (whatever in the hell that means). He relates the consequences both natural and man-made that befalls on such behavior, but never comes out from behind the page and says "booh!"
He wisely leaves all moral judgement in the place where it rightly belongs: in the hearts and minds of the readers.
It is not a book for the weak of back, heart or mind. It will challenge the reader as well as entertain for Wolfe pulls no punches and that is a treatment most appropriate for the Hemingway-esque machismo frat boy jock mentality that underlies all of Kesey's art.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a excellent example of brilliant reporting. It combines stunning writing with cool logic and impassioned empathetic distance. This is a must read.
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on July 7, 2000
Let me preface this review by saying I was not alive in the 60's, and I never talked to my parents about their experiences, yet through this book, I feel as though I shared in the madness that were the Acid Tests. Tom Wolfe's masterpiece "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," is an absolutely amazing book written about a group of Hippies hell-bent on spreading they're organized chaos throughout the nation. Apart from the subject matter (which I'll get to) this book is as well written as you could imagine. Somehow, Wolfe captured the experiences of the Merry Pranksters with his writing style. His use of the elipses (...), run on sentances, and his insightful commentary actually puts the reader into this experience. The experience itself is a whirlwind journey accross the US, in a cloud of pot-smoke, a rush of speed and a series of mescaline and lsd induced hallucinations. All the while, this seemingly nonsensical journey is carefully laid out as only Wolfe could have done. To read a book about 15 men and women that travel the nation not knowing right from left, Wolfe explains everything in stunning imagery and intense detail. Whether or not you approve or liked the hippies movement, and even if your offended by drug related subject matter, you should read this book. As a purely literary work, it's easily top 10, and as a story of the acid movement and a historical look at the 60's, there's none better.
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on June 23, 2000
I've savored just about every word this man's ever written. I still vividly recall him at a lecture he gave in Berkley in 1972 standing at the lectern in his white Gatsby suit, starched pink shirt and nattily knotted tie. I can't recall the ostensible topic. He covered so much ground and had such a wealth of ideas and insights that the topic was irrelevent anyway. He's always been our keenest observer of American culture, on subjects ranging from hippies, art snobs, wall street, the space race, to the Southern nouveau-riches.
In terms of unadulterated reading enjoyment, however, this book is still my favorite. He captures the era perfectly. This was the period in the mid-sixties when the hippie philosophy and lifestyle was still genuine, before it had become commercially exploited by the mass media, before Manson and Altamont and the seeds of evil. It was an uncorrupted, pure, joyous movement and moment. Owsley was the bay area chemist who produced hits of Sandoz-quality acid that sent the children out dancing blissfully through the night and into the purple dawn. It truly looked like a brave new world. If you are young and can't undertand why former hippies wax nostalgic about it, it's primarily (at least to me) because that tiny era of innocence can never be recreated. The waters of cynisism have washed away all the bridges to that idyllic past. The era can, however, thanks to Tom Wolfe, be revisited. I urge you to take the tour.
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on June 23, 2000
I've savored just about every word this man's ever written. I still vividly recall him at a lecture he gave in Berkley in 1972 standing at the lectern in his white Gatsby suit, starched pink shirt and nattily knotted tie. I can't recall the ostensible topic. He covered so much ground and had such a wealth of ideas and insights that the topic was irrelevent anyway. He's always been our keenest observer of American culture, on subjects ranging from hippies, art snobs, wall street, the space race, to the Southern nouveau-riches.
In terms of unadulterated reading enjoyment, however, this book is still my favorite. He captures the era perfectly. This was the period in the mid-sixties when the hippie philosophy and lifestyle was still genuine, before it had become commercially exploited by the mass media, before Manson and Altamont and the seeds of evil. It was an uncorrupted, pure, joyous movement and moment. Owsley was the bay area chemist who produced hits of Sandoz-quality acid that sent the children out dancing blissfully through the night and into the purple dawn. It truly looked like a brave new world. If you are young and can't undertand why former hippies wax nostalgic about it, it's primarily (at least to me) because that tiny era of innocence can never be recreated.
If ever there were a work of either fiction or non fiction that captured the essence, freedom, and expectation of a marvelous era, this is it!
One of the great non fiction works of the 20th century!
BEK
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