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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

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Tom Wolfe's much-discussed kaleidoscopic non-fiction novel chronicles the tale of novelist Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. In the 1960s, Kesey led a group of psychedelic sympathizers around the country in a painted bus, presiding over LSD-induced "acid tests" all along the way. Long considered one of the greatest books about the history of the hippies, Wolfe's ability to research like a reporter and simultaneously evoke the hallucinogenic indulgence of the era ensures that this book, written in 1967, will live long in the counter-culture canon of American literature.

416 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1968

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About the author

Tom Wolfe

109 books2,507 followers
Wolfe was educated at Washington and Lee Universities and also at Yale, where he received a PhD in American studies.

Tom Wolfe spent his early days as a Washington Post beat reporter, where his free-association, onomatopoetic style would later become the trademark of New Journalism. In books such as The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe delves into the inner workings of the mind, writing about the unconscious decisions people make in their lives. His attention to eccentricities of human behavior and language and to questions of social status are considered unparalleled in the American literary canon.

He is one of the founders of the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Tom Wolfe is also famous for coining and defining the term fiction-absolute .


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,234 reviews
Profile Image for Kaya.
Author 8 books110 followers
November 12, 2009
You know those books that blew your mind in high school? Like Siddhartha or anything by Bukowski or Nietzche and you read it in a cafe trying to look cool to the older hippies who ran the place and one of them sleazed up to you and said, "you have beautiful skin" and gave you a copy of Tom Wolfe's book on the Merry Pranksters and tried to get you to go out back and smoke a suspiciously tangy looking joint which you delcline but take the book, and read it and are briefly tempted to run off to a commune you've heard about in Arcata where women do their own pap smears with hand mirrors (that's what the brochure said) and then twenty years later you find a copy of Woolfe's book in a weird used bookstore and re-read it and think, Christ, hippies were fucking annoying?
Profile Image for Jonathan Ashleigh.
Author 1 book116 followers
November 16, 2016
I think this should have been half the length. Most pages seemed as though Tom Wolfe was simply describing some seventies hippy picture in as much detail as possible. It would have been more effective if he just showed me the picture.
Profile Image for Fabian.
933 reviews1,525 followers
November 12, 2020
A mega doozy! A unique faux/dopey emblem of hippie Americana that blows angelic trumpets in your face with the celebration of a dadaesque topsy-turvy rover's lifestyle. So, oh so VERY unique. Is it all nonfiction? Really?! Or is it a horror film in disguise (no, no, no, just hear me out!) wherein body snatchers captivate the fragile minds of the youth, ensnaring them in major LSD consumption, "intersubjectivity," codependent thinking and a fantastical creation of genuine communal attachment? The hippies were a group that's just (if not more, at the time) self-aware & as conceited as all of them are. All about the "me."

Once the novel is one-fourth over, it finally becomes accessible, cracking open like some golden egg. And what pours out of the almost-mystical experience--following a group of misfits who grok over the long roads & ever-expanding horizons of the motherland--is something unforgettable, unattainable for any other writer than this one, the overly ambitious writer of "Bonfire of the Vanities," Mr. Tom Wolfe. Reading "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" is like following the Pied Piper into some sweet oblivion, acting as stupid foolish children, except that your parents will never find out nor be sad about your departure.

"You're either on the bus or off the bus." Yup, there are life-lessons aplenty to be harvested from this utmost jewel, this crystallized ruby, as important to historians as it is for creative writers.

This one requires your utmost attention, reader. Bring it into your own personal movie, which plays out in a singular, long, mystifying strip of Day-Glo Highlighter acid-&-lemon green!

Tom Wolfe, RIP
Profile Image for Jeff .
912 reviews674 followers
July 11, 2014
On the bus or off the bus?

The trolley glided along the tracks. Hovering, floating, flying. The ticket checker, his name tag read Mitchell, had the head of a warthog. “Feed the bee”, he said. :::: “What?” Jeff seemed trapped in a powerful time space vortex. His hands looked rubbery, like Plastic. Plastic Man. But drawn by a meth freak. A bunny, half-gold, half-silver, Day Glo halo, blood dripping from its fangs. “Feed the bee”, she said. “Feed it now! It’s hungry.” Jeff turned to the other passengers. “I just want to grok”, he thought, but the passengers turned toward him. Sensing his thoughts. They started to howl. Are they howling because they’re pixilated, speckled like a Seurat.? “You should have tried the strawberry Kool Aid. You have choices.” CONTROL. CONTROOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLL! Outside the trolley, flying monkeys were flinging sugar cubes at Ma&Pa&Buddy&Sis. Paul is dead. Just go with the flow. ::::: Dog plaster was oozing from the roof. It was red and slimy. Slimy. Cassady is there. Played by Nick Nolte. He’s juggling a toaster. He’s the oracle. He’s the big, eye on top of the pyramid.

More than half of this book was written like a faux LSD trip. This kind of rambling prose is about as thrilling and contemporary as a Peter Max drawing or a Nehru jacket. If you can get past this – it’s challenging – and you’re interested in the transition from unwashed Beatnick to unwashed Hippie, which is facilitated by Ken Kesey via psychedelic drugs, then this is the book for you. Groove to acid tests, self-absorbed hippies, squalor for the sake of squalor – soundtrack provided by The Grateful Dead (don’t get me started on them).

Wolfe’s archness, think The Right Stuff or The Painted Word (infinitely better books) takes a beating after about thirty pages of this stuff. He might have been the Daddy to New Journalism but he was Hunter S. Thompson's bitch.

Also, Wolfe like a young Norman Mailer, doesn’t know how to spell the word “fug”.

On the bus or off the bus? I’ll drive my car, thanks, but first a good de-lousing.

Recommended listening:

For a fun psychedelic album (and kids there aren't many): The Small Faces - Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake

For an album that skewers the hippies: The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only in it for the Money
Profile Image for John Hampton.
7 reviews3 followers
November 5, 2007
These nut-jobs actually came to Houston with their bus and parked it two doors down from my best friend in Houston. Around 1969, moon, Led Zeppelin touring, people taking LSD and sitting on the hill in Hermann Park staring at the sun. My older brother and sister would drag me along to look at the "hippies" ... then the next day in the paper would be another story of a young Houston man who had become blind forever by roasting his retinas with pupils wide open looking at the sun. Guess I should have given him my shades.

Ken Kesey and the "Merry Pranksters" are the subject of this real-life look into the lifestyle of California hippies , commune living, and all those weird things you kids have heard of happening in the sixties.
Well, The weekend they were in Houston, Ken Kesey (a benign Manson) went to the stadium where a day-long concert of the summer (Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service ... blah blah) was happening and again I was in tow by my older brother and sister, Kathy.
This guy Kesey was there to entertain between sets, a true to life Haight-Asbury scene. At one point, he asked everyone to jump in synchronicity , I thought to feel the stadium rumble for a few seconds, but looking back he may have been trying to cause the thing to collapse! Hell, HE was on the field, as was the stage. I was gonna be the one to die, not him.
Finally, he asked everyone to take a deep breath and let it out slowly as a loud hiss. Again take a breath and hiss. Again... again... over and over we were all seated and I was feeling light headed. Finally he says 'Take one more, deeper than any other, and as you breathe in, stand up and stretch as far as you can and as hard as you can. I remember I did this, and as I stood, I stretched and suddenly everything was going dark ... then wham! I hit the dirt, fainted. I had never fainted before. As I awoke, I noticed EVERYONE IN THIS 70+ THOUSAND SEAT STADIUM WAS ON THE GROUND ... having also fainted. He was indeed a prankster. Hippies.... if you want to know (why?) what it was REALLY like to be around hippies constantly ... read this.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,274 followers
July 5, 2020
"What we are, we're going to wail with on this whole trip."

What Ken Kesey is is a prick, so let's not get any delusions about that.

But most great leaders are pricks, and the case Wolfe is making in this masterful biography is that Kesey, in his way, was a great leader. His early days on the Furthur bus, discovering LSD and inventing the psychedelic movement, come off like Stanley or Shackleton: explorers in new lands, leading a ragtag but brave band of adventurers into dangerous frontier territory. The middle part makes you feel like Kesey was really on the edge of something new - or at least that he really, really wanted to be - placing him among prophets remembered and failed.

The final part...well, you know how this arc goes. Hubris and overreaching. It's a standard rise and fall plot - if you've seen The Doors, you get the idea - but I've never seen it done better.

This book doesn't make me care much for Kesey. But I do have a new respect for Neal Cassady, now the muse of two counterculture movements in a row. I came out of On The Road feeling sorry for Cassady, who seemed like a mentally unstable person taken advantage of by Kerouac and his crew. But the fact that he managed to become a central, trusted, key figure once again, in this movement also...dude had to know what he was doing. I mean, other than killing himself.

I can't believe Gus Van Sant is sitting on the rights to this because he doesn't know how to film it. For Pete's sake, dude, just cast Robert Downey Jr and turn a camera on.

You may be reminded a few times that it is super boring to listen to someone describe their acid trip. You may disagree with the philosophy getting chased here. You may not like Ken Kesey at all. You may think the whole thing is mostly bullshit. But you will enjoy hearing Kesey wail with the whole trip.
Profile Image for Paul Schroeder.
4 reviews1 follower
November 18, 2007
This book was a huge disappointment. It's hard to believe that a book that included so many interesting people, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsbergh and Neal Cassady just to name a few, could be so tedious and uninteresting. Wolfe's descriptions are clunky and monotonous. This is a guy who is about as square and straight as they come attempting to describe to his readers what it was like for Kesey and the merry pranksters to be high on acid and most of it reads like a hollow impersonation of Jack Kerouac. The poems at the beginning of some of the chapters are particularly nauseating. The book lacks substance as well. The further I got into it the more I began to feel that I was not getting the whole story but rather a romanticized version of what the hippie acid culture was really like. I'm not sure if Tom Wolfe set out to write an objective journalistic piece covering a time and a place in American history or to write an interesting and exciting non-fiction novel, but he failed on both ends.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
651 reviews825 followers
October 25, 2020
“You're either on the bus or off the bus.”

r/LSD - The Original Furthur Bus, with the Original Merry Prankster

“The world was simply and sheerly divided into 'the aware', those who had the experience of being vessels of the divine, and a great mass of 'the unaware', 'the unmusical', 'the unattuned.”

I decided to read Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test after finishing Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Wolfe follows Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters as they set out to experience a counter cultural American landscape in their 1939 International Harvester. There were parts I really liked. I now know much more about the writer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and how he saw his work than I previously did. It was also interesting to get an account of other iconoclastic figures of the 60s such as Neal Cassady (the model for Dean Moriarty's character in On the Road) and the poet Allen Ginsberg. Portraits of the Merry Pranksters were also compelling as were interactions with the band, The Grateful Dead, and the motorcycle gang, Hell's Angels. While I'm glad I read this, and found parts interesting, there were other parts that I felt bogged down the account. 3.5 stars

“Put your good where it will do the most!”
Profile Image for Paul.
1,143 reviews1,908 followers
December 3, 2020
Oh dear, what was my teenage self thinking of when liking this? It is a piece of literary journalism which looks at the roots of the hippie movement and the origins of the use of LSD. The book centres particularly on Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Kesey took LSD very early (1959) in a trial to test its effects (funded by the CIA, although Kesey was not aware of this). He liked it and felt it was something that everyone should try, in fact he became a bit of a zealot in promoting it, gathering a group of disciples around him. With some of his literary earnings he bought a property in La Honda in California where a group of devotees congregated. They bought a bus, decorated it and went on a road trip. They also filmed a good deal of it and there are hours of film. The bus was driven by Neal Cassady, already immortalised as Dean Moriarty in “On The Road”. The collection of people on the bus became known as the Merry Pranksters. Copious amounts of drugs were taken, not just LSD, which was not yet illegal. The police were never far behind. As they travelled they set up Acid Tests, parties involving LSD and various types of lighting. The in house band morphed into The Grateful Dead.
It’s all very repetitive and the portrayal of Kesey is a bit too messianic for me. You also have to wade through writing like this:
“EXCEPT FOR HAGEN’S GIRL, THE BEAUTY WITCH. IT SEEMS LIKE she never even gets off the bus to cop a urination. She’s sitting back in the back of the bus with nothing on, just a blanket over her lap and her legs wedged back into the corner, her and her little bare breasts, silent, looking exceedingly witch-like. Is she on the bus or off the bus? She has taken to wearing nothing but the blanket and she sheds that when she feels like it. Maybe that is her thing and she is doing her thing and wailing with it and the bus barrels on off, heading for Houston, Texas, and she becomes Stark Naked in the great movie, one moment all conked out, but with her eyes open, staring, the next laughing and coming on, a lively Stark Naked, and they are all trying to just snap their fingers to it but now she is getting looks that have nothing to do with the fact that she has not a thing on, hell, big deal, but she is now waxing extremely freaking ESP. She keeps coming up to somebody who isn’t saying a goddamn thing and looking into his eyes with the all-embracing look of total acid understanding, our brains are one brain, so let’s visit, you and I, and she says: ‘Ooooooooh, you really think that, I know what you mean, but do you-u-u-u-u-u-u-u- ueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” — finishing off in a sailing trémulo laugh as if she has just read your brain and !t is the weirdest of the weird shit ever, your brain eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee —“
A good deal of it is just bloody annoying (a bit like the hippies), but did you spot something else. The drugs clearly affected some more than others and there were some vulnerable people involved as well. The attitude to women and race is pretty awful (plenty of use of the word “spade”). There is also a level of cruelty which I found disturbing. Perhaps it would be more accurate to sat there was a level of self-absorption which drugs can bring leading to a lack of awareness of the needs of others.
In fact Wolfe does portray all this as similar to the birth of a new religion:
“In fact, none of the great founded religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience, what Joachim Wach called ‘the experience of the holy,’ and Max Weber, ‘possession of the deity,’ the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one.”
The ironic thing is that the whole thing was funded by the royalties from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” Kesey’s famous novel. Capitalism funding psychedelia! Wolfe did all his research in three weeks when he was with the Pranksters and never took LSD himself, so there is almost an element of parody and ridicule. Given what I have quoted above there is the issue of whether the cruelty, racism and misogyny comes from Wolfe himself or the original Pranksters. Given Wolfe’s history being reactionary and racist I would question the veracity of anything he wrote. As the book says:
“You’re either on the bus…or off the bus.”
I’m definitely off it!
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,845 followers
December 22, 2018
To me, nothing says Christmas better than trippy colors mixed with love, peace, and harmony.

Turn on the lights and turn yourself on, find the bus and/or Santa's sleigh, and it's truly the season to be jolly!

... and freak out the squares, man.

Break the mold in our lives, put on the day-glow, THINK DIFFERENTLY, and DEFY EVERYTHING! It's CHRISTMAS-ish. :) Let's check out those elvish helpers...

The Merry Pranksters!

Ken Kesey (un)led this band of social explorers took so many mind-altering trips that they spawned a whole movement in the mid-sixties... so much so that the whole thing became passe and overdone well before '69, and even burned out a number of mental cosmonauts before LSD became illegal a few years before.

This particular book is a Non-Fiction in the best tradition of great storytelling. Or is it the reverse?

Doesn't matter. It's all real. It happened. A Kerouac-Adventure diving deep in the psyche as well as busting social-norms, these Merry Pranksters hung out with Hell's Angels, disturbed a disturbed America, and gave access to unimaginable quantities of hallucinogenics to the world. The impact on music, fame, spirituality is undisputed. This was the total awakening of the imagination, for good or ill, that made people hope for a brighter future.

Hope and all these people working together to build something bigger than any of us IS the point. Never mind that it didn't quite turn out the way they hoped. The pendulum sure swang back HARD on them.

Even so, this history is pretty freaking amazing. All the good, the bad, the ignorance and the hope... it just smells like Christmas to me!

Merry Christmas! The bus is here!

Profile Image for Lara.
52 reviews17 followers
April 9, 2020
I enjoyed this book. I grew up partially on the peninsula with a father who was pretty involved in the counter culture. I ran around at 12 in a black corduroy cape with a sparkly Mylar dot on my forehead.. and when Ken Kesey's bus pulled up in our driveway in Barron Park and he and the Pranksters melted out I thought the circus had arrived.

I read Electric Kool Aid Acid Test soon after it came out and I thought Tom Wolfe really captured the feeling of the times. It was exciting for me to read because I felt pretty immersed in the times through my dad. I was young and precocious and I thought Kesey was about as handsome as could be.. I had read his books and loved One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest a lot. He was a larger than life figure and I circled around he (?) and my father as they sat at the work table in our garage eyeing his muscular bicep under his black tee shirt from behind my fathers print dryer.

A thought: I haven’t read this book since it came out.
Not sure what I would think now some 30 odd years later!?!
Profile Image for Eric K..
26 reviews9 followers
November 22, 2007
I had a brief interaction with Tom Wolfe last November.

He came to speak to my class in one of those rare "Oh wow, Columbia Journalism might be worth it" moments. Inexplicably, he started in on a lengthy out-of-context run about how the New York Sun was a disgrace of a newspaper. I happened to be working there as a reporter at the time (and hating it), it was one of those surreal coincidences that seem to happen to me on an eerily regular basis. He asked for questions, my hand shot up first, and I prefaced with "Hi Mr. Wolfe, big fan of your work, and I write for the NY Sun...." He hemmed and hawed, we both laughed and shared a little moment.

As for the Acid Test, well, it's a masterpiece of writing.
Profile Image for Michelle Curie.
697 reviews343 followers
January 8, 2018
"I don't want to be rude to you fellows from the City, but there's been things going on out here that you would never guess in your wildest million years, old buddy..."

Oh, to having lived in the Sixties. All the things people whisper and get reminiscent about today comes alive in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It certainly was a ride, in the most literal sense of the word.

I mean, this book is nuts. Crazy. Insane. Tom Wolfe presents his experience of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who traveled across the United States in a colourfully painted school bus named Further. In the 60s they became famous for their use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs and unknowingly lay the foundation stone for the rising hippie movement.

"Everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there's not going to be anything to apologise about. What we are, we're going to wail with on this whole trip."

The book today is also seen as an important representative of the New Journalism literary style. The as-if-first hand account of Kesey and his followers makes you feel like you're part of the gang and it's surely a crazy drug-filled life they led. On their journey they meet up with people like Allen Ginsberg and Neil Cassidy, encounter the Hells Angels and the Grateful Dead, are chased down by the police and flee to Mexico, only to find out that it's just not the same thing there.

I also didn't actually know about the Acid Tests before reading this. The title was given to a series of parties that were held in the mid-1960s, where LSD (often put into the drink Kool-Aid, hence the title of the book) was taken to abandon the real world and reach a state of intersubjectivity.

Books written in seemingly effortless, stream-of-conscioussness style, often have the ability to convey a rawness and intensity that overly polished narratives sometimes lose in their process of editing. This one didn't evoke the comfort of Dharma Bums in me, or the wanderlust of On the Road, but it had its own craziness, documenting the transition from the Beat-Generation to the Hippie-Movement.

"I believe there's a whole new generation of kids. They walk different... I can hear it in the music... It used to go life-death, life-death, but now it's death-life, death-life..."

Having that said, it's an achievement how Tom Wolfe, who was never truly "on the bus" (he claims to never having taken LSD and only smoked marijuana once) made you feel like you're part of the experience throughout the entire book. If that's a thought that tickles your fancy, this one is for you.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
4,983 reviews1,082 followers
July 23, 2012
This is one of the popular books of adolescence which I didn't get around to reading until an adult, inspired, in part, by having seen the movie version of Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest. I would have liked it more as a teenager.

Now, forty some years after publication, Electric is a bit of an historical curiosity. As much as the writings of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert or Alan Watts, it substantially contributed to the creation in the public's eye of the counter-culture. As a kid I would have read it as a celebration. As an adult I read it from a greater distance, as someone else's loud party which got a bit out of hand.

In the popular imagination the psychedelic phenomenon started in the labs around Harvard on the East coast and amidst psychotherapeutic communities on the West, used primarily by intellectuals, then spread throughout America like a virus out of a research lab. This book gives an account of one of its more spectacular courses through the heartland, linking West to East and, incidentally, the countercultural generations of the fifties and sixties, the beats and the hippies.

As the outline above suggests, the real source of the psychedelic movement were the laboratories of governments and major pharmaceutical corporations, but, like the Andromeda Strain, the stuff got out of containment and the promised truth serum and miracle cure for addiction became instead 'all things to all men'--anything from the road to god (or Satan), to the party drug of choice.
Profile Image for Judy.
1,640 reviews268 followers
May 30, 2018
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.

Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,846 reviews34.9k followers
February 10, 2013
I read this book ---
and 'The Right Stuff' when a 'yoga friend, (no less), recommend I read 'Tom Wolfe' (Before knowing of Goodreads).

Being older --late to the party (never considered this book when I actually lived in Berkeley attending Cal during the early 70's), -- what I enjoyed most about 'both' this book and 'The Right Stuff' was the historical trip down memory lane of a culture that comes around once in a lifetime.

Tom Wolfe is another one of those talented odd balls. (funny-witty-crazy). What's not to like? (a small diet of Tom Wolfe is as good for the soul as an hour of Vinyasa Flow).

Its all about 'balance'!

Profile Image for Michael Jandrok.
189 reviews340 followers
August 29, 2018
Ok, Children of the Sun and Merry Pranksters and all the Merry Wannabes and heads and freaks. I’m going to tell you how it was, and what it meant, and what it might still mean for today if anyone wants to still be up front and open their minds and LISTEN instead of jawboning...spend a bit of time in the NOW, and understand how things went down….back then.

In 1962 a man named Ken Kesey wrote a book called “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and he and the book became very popular. That book was about control in its many forms, and at his root Ken Kesey was also about control, but we’ll get to more of that later. For now you just need to know that Kesey UNDERSTOOD things on a higher level, because he had been introduced to the great God Rotor, and had taken some LSD trips in a lab environment, and he wanted to unleash that knowledge upon the world in a glorious, colorful blast of pure NOW. And so he gathered a few followers and took them into the woods, where a few more showed up. And the circle of knowledge grew, the disciples of the great God Rotor. Even Neal Cassady showed up, fresh from his Beat trip and ready to begin a new journey…..Kerouac knew the torch was to be passed….the Beats were the old hands….they were on the road but weren’t anymore, but Neal needed to be, and so he landed with Kesey in order to….drive the BUS.

And the BUS was a real thing, a tripped out, tricked out monstrosity that could carry Kesey and the Pranksters forth to spread the message, and so they did. And you were either ON THE BUS or OFF THE BUS. And they took the bus to Houston, and through the Southlands, and up the Eastern Seaboard all the way to New York City, where they found that others were taking their own trips. But as it turned out, old Tim Leary and his meditative shroud were most decidedly not ON THE BUS, and so they were Pranked. And along the way Kesey and the Pranksters learned more about control and how to use it. And all of this trip was recorded for posterity in THE MOVIE. Endless loops of footage documenting the trip, but more importantly it was becoming clear that THE MOVIE was the thing itself, and that others could be drawn into the movie, and the trip and the movie and the bus and Kesey and the Pranksters could control the movie. All in the glorious, technicolor, Day-Glo NOW.

It was all a time of discovery, a new paradigm that only a select few were into as of yet, but there would be more in time. And they made their way back to the woods to recalibrate the trip. And lo and behold but there was a Mountain Girl standing there when they got back. The bus was parked, but the REAL bus was still in motion, Cassady behind the wheel cranking up the speed and Kesey not the leader, but still the leader….not the prophet, but still the prophet. And in the midst of all of this, Kesey would bring the Hell’s Angels into the movie. Hulking, menacing creatures of doom and death, but they had a role to play in the movie, and so they came to get turned on and find the great God Rotor for themselves. And this whole movie was about one thing, the NOW. Motion, one must stay in motion to be in the NOW, and the Pranksters were most certainly in motion.

And by now the coppers, the flatfeet, the guys with the shiny shoes, well….it turns out they had figured out that all this crazy Prankster business out in the woods can’t be a square shooting deal at all, and they eventually moved in and tried to create their own movie. And the Pranksters had to scatter, and leave the woods behind, but still in the NOW, still ON THE BUS. Well, most of them….a few people got off of the bus or were left behind along the way. But the true believers, they could always find the bus. Those left...well, they were never REALLY on the bus in the first place.

And a dude named Owsley became part of the movie, and it turned out that he was the key to turning more people on to the NOW. And so the Acid Tests were born, to show people the way. Big multimedia events these Acid Tests were, and more and more folks showed up to partake of the magic of the MOVIE, to participate in the NOW. But the heat was still on Kesey, and now he was busted, busted, busted. And so he ran. He ran down to the Ratlands of Mexico in the bus, Cassady still driving. And he holed up to play the Fugitive Game on the Rat coastline. But the Ratlands were harsh and unforgiving, and eventually the heat found its way to the Rat house, where Kesey was holed up. And so he went back to the source, to play the Fugitive Game on American soil once more. Until the Cops and Robbers Game was played, and he took the fall. But by this time the magic genie was out of the bottle, and couldn’t be put back, not yet anyway. And so Kesey paid his dues and retreated, and the Merry Pranksters scattered to the winds, but once you were ON THE BUS, you were always ON THE BUS.

And this dude named Tom Wolfe wrote a book called “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” to try and tell this story to the people, and maybe the squares who didn’t really understand just what the hell had gotten into their kids. And it was a good book, and it turned out to be one of the best documents of the entire experience of the NOW, because in the end it was also part of the MOVIE. Now you need to understand that Wolfe was himself a bit of a square, from New York City and we already know those guys weren’t really ON THE BUS. But it was ok, Wolfe tried his best to get the whole story put down. And his book came out before the whole scene reached its screaming, orgasmic creshendo at a place called Woodstock in August of 1969. And it was before the whole scene reached its skidding, horrible death knell at a place called Altamont just a few months later in December of 1969, at the hands of the Hell’s Angels no less. And the circle seemed complete at that point. The movie was over. Neal Cassady was found dead in Mexico and would no longer drive, which was fitting because that trip was done. The bus would go with Kesey to Oregon, where it would lay in a field, rusting and decaying.

I can’t really describe to you how it feels to be in the NOW, but I have been there. You are either ON THE BUS or OFF THE BUS where that is concerned. But living in the NOW certainly opened my doors of perception, with all apologies to Aldous Huxley. There are many ways to live in the NOW besides THAT way, and people today could learn a few good lessons about what it was like to live in the NOW back THEN. Because for an all too brief moment there back in the then it seemed like maybe people really COULD make their own MOVIE. Maybe people really COULD cause change to occur in conformity with Will, with all apologies to Aleister Crowley.

I will tell you this much….everyone in the end has the choice to either be ON THE BUS or OFF THE BUS. It’s up to you. You get to decide. You either have the control, or you don’t. The lessons are here, in Wolfe’s book. It’s a snapshot of THEN, and how that relates to the NOW. Read it. It’s a fine bus ride.
5 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2011
"You're either on the bus...or off the bus." This is the choice facing you as you begin to read Tom Wolfe's classic saga of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters as they test the boundries of consciousness and test the limits of other human's patience. What is almost as amazing as the lengths to which the pranksters went to enjoy their existence on Earth, is the style that Wolfe has chosen to narrate the adventures. Brillliantly blending stream of consciousness writing and a journalistic sense of description, Wolfe immerses himself in Kesey's world in an attempt to understand the thoughts of a group of adults who would paint a school bus with day-glo colors and trek across the United States with pitchers full of acid and a video camera keeping an eye on it all. Who could resist a chance to find out what it was like to spend a quaint evening in the woods reaching altered states of consciousness with a group of Hell's Angels, or taking a peek inside the world of the budding hippie stars led by a youthful Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Whether or not you approve of massive drug use will not impact your liking of this book, and for anyone who takes an interest in the counterculture movement this book is a must-read. Also acts as a perfect companion to Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Now you must decide, "Can YOU pass the acid test?"
Profile Image for Maria.
21 reviews20 followers
August 12, 2007
My favorite idea presented in the book.

"A person has all sorts of lags built into him, Kesey is saying. Once, the most basic, is the sensory lag, the lag between the time your senses receive something and you are able to react. One-thirtieth of a second is the time it takes, if you are the most alert person alive, and most people are a lot slower than that.... You can't go any faster than that... We are all doomed to spend the rest of our lives watching a movies of our lives - we are always acting on what has just finished happening. It happened at least 1/30th of a second ago. We think we are in the present, but we aren't. The present we know is only a movies of the past, and we will really never be able to control the present through ordinary means."
Profile Image for Charlie.
20 reviews10 followers
November 29, 2009
First time around, this book positively made me want to try acid. Jury's still out on that one, folks.
Profile Image for Evan.
1,072 reviews726 followers
May 15, 2016
I swear for a good long while I was seriously considering giving this book two stars for Wolfe's disingenuous pseudo-hipster "spontaneity," a la Kerouac but with bells on; the style and tone were actually kind of making me roll my eyes and cringe. And then there are the Merry Pranksters themselves; I can't quite tell if I just outright loathe them or actually begrudgingly envy them; doing whatever feels good in the "now." I tended to use to romanticize hippies uncritically, but have come to see things with more of a balance; their lack of responsibility to the social polity I find less admirable now.

Anyway, the book reads like lightning and is unquestionably a valuable and informative document on the counterculture of the '60s. In many ways, though, I wish Wolfe could have reined in some of his youthful stylistic enthusiasms. I know he's trying to emulate his subjects to a degree, to get in the spirit of the thing, but I think a more straightforward reportage approach would have been to my liking. Then again, the book would not be so famed and well regarded, no doubt.

OK, for 270 pages Wolfe attempts at various times to capture the LSD experience, but it isn't until he allows an acid test participant-- Clair Brush--to speak verbatim in her own words for several pages, that we actually get a real sense of what the experience is like. Clair Brush should have written this book...

The book wore me down a bit; by about page 300 I was wishing it was over. That said, it was a fast read; Wolfe's shotgun impressionistic Jackson Pollock array of words made it easy to speed read large chunks and get a complete enough view of the scene being described. I liked the book best when it slowed down into something closer to standard reportage. The book filled big gaps in my knowledge about the earliest and waning days of the San Francisco psychedelic scene. Anyone interested in the 60s counterculture will have to read this sooner or later. It's kind of unavoidable.

37 reviews
December 27, 2007
excerpt from a history paper I wrote on this book, which I posted to dcbooks:

"While the book doesn’t hold answers, it is a great read for anyone who has ever been part of a subculture. It puts the story out there in a way that is honest and fair, showing not just the idealism, but also the grime and the violence and the difficulties of rebellion against the norm and the inherent dangers in basing a movement on a mind altering drug. It might be easy to reject the story as a tale of mistaken adventures of the past, but only out of context from the things which came next. The garden that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters planted was set in very fertile ground. This group changed portions of the world forever. From their ideas came the rave scene, the flash mob scene, the multimedia party scene, psychedelic art, and more. They had planted a garden where plants are still mutating and changing today. Many of those movements spawned from their ideas have also died away and been forgotten, but those have spawned yet more movements and new ideas. It’s a marathon run of freaks, taking the torch and still heading on and on toward “FURTHUR” and to the next set of mysteries."
Profile Image for Nat.
611 reviews59 followers
March 30, 2010
I have Tom Wolfe's aesthetic taste figured out: He likes exuberance. He doesn't like ascetics. Asceticism is unamerican.

In The Right Stuff, he prefers Yeager and the test pilots to the astronauts who don't get to really fly their capsules.

In From Bauhaus to Our House, he loathes the European modernists (Mies et al.) and he likes FLW and Saarinen.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, he sides with Kesey and the Pranksters with their undoctrinaire deployment of LSD and technology against other psychedelic advocates like Leary who are from the East coast, who like Eastern religion, and who would frown at an enormous sound system.
Profile Image for gaby.
116 reviews19 followers
October 3, 2007
This book was okay. Tom Wolfe was always an outsider, a New Yorker, even a (gasp) Yalie. He was never really 'on the bus' if you know what I mean. But for a square, he explains the scene pretty well. The pranksers were like the scenesters of any era: self-absorbed and fairly boring pricks. It is an interesting book for one fact if nothing else: it's kind of the only book written in the 60's about the 60's. HS Thompson didn't really get rolling til the early 70's (Hells Angels came out in the 60's, but it wasn't til Fear and Loathing in 1970 that he really got it together, and even then it was the beginning of the revisionist nostalgia 60's. . .), and I'm hard pressed to think of another book from the era ABOUT the era.

I'm now reading In Cold Blood, written in 1965, the year the pranksters dosed my mom at the Trips Festival in SF. And shit, if Capote isn't from a whole different world than those day-glo banshees. . .
Profile Image for Pudge.
3 reviews
December 26, 2008
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.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,057 reviews52 followers
October 12, 2021
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

This was my second read of this book. Having first read it in high school, I did not appreciate hippies or know much about Hunter Thompson or Ken Kesey. Having read other Tom Wolfe books like 'The Right Stuff' and 'Bonfire of the Vanities' that I consider to be American classics, I thought I'd give this one another go.

I can say now that being much older helps and that the writing is quite good - as one would expect. Wolfe's extraordinary ability to capture the counter-culture in that moment - the mid 60's - is impressive. In an odd way this book serves more as a history of the period than a great story.

I also enjoyed Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels which is a similar book about a similar topic written within the same year. Hell's Angels is more dramatic than the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe is still the better writer but the drama in TEKAAT is a little uneven - sometimes boring and sometimes seat of your pants exciting.

4 to 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Sketchbook.
672 reviews213 followers
November 9, 2012
Did the Man in the White Suit have "Sweet Tooth" pushers ?
In the 60s he teased through his hat, to great acclaim ;
his liberal dose of saucy irreverence bursts with a brisk
vein of low humor. He injected the comic strip into daily
journalism-scribbles and it became his pet province. Meanwhile,
he remains a sort of modest church lady. Some of his pieces
are swell; he's at his best when he's at his waggiest (for he
never reaches wit). As a New Journalist, he dares to probe
inner thoughts of others; beware : he's an Externalist.
Keep peeling an onion and you're left with nothing but aroma.
Profile Image for Andy Miller.
802 reviews50 followers
November 26, 2012
I was assigned to read this book in college(1975). I couldn't finish it, it seemed to be so....poorly written. I tried again this year as I've just reread Kesey's books and On the Road. This book focuses on a bus trip organized by Ken Kesey and driven by Neal Cassidy(the real Dean Moriaty in On the Road shortly after Kesey finished Sometimes a Great Notion--and the bus ride is basically one long acid trip.
I read it this time- more as an interesting history of compelling characters from a fascinating time, the only drawback being that it is so...poorly written.
But a compelling story made more interesting by so many characters becoming much more famous since the book was written. It bridges Neal Cassidy, think of the Beat Generation of the 50's driving to Larry McMurtrey's house(think Lonesome Dove). You meet Hunter Thompson and his articles on the Hell's Angels and then meet the Grateful Dead who started off as a house band for the Electric Kool Aid tests(LSD parties)
Interesting read but so many things bothered me. Essentially glorifies the Hell's Angels a group of people who rape and rob and ridicules a group of Unitarians whose only sin appears to be that they are too earnest in wanting peace and helping others. The description of the Merry Pranksters walking out of a Beatles concert was supposed to be a statement about crowd infatuation with the Beatles, but I couldn't help wonder if it was because Kesey couldn't stand not being the center of attention.
Wolfe's telling of how Kesey's speech to an anti war rally supports Wolfe's cynicism about anyone who tries to actually change our country, but I couldn't help that it was easy for Kesey to deceive anti war activists and then ridicule them as a wrestling injury allowed him to avoid the draft.
Anyway, the book did make me think, it was an interesting story and did evoke the times but I finished glad that Wolfe's 1960's style of writing (New Journalism) did not catch on and wishing that Kesey's LSD use and other values hadn't kept him from writing more books like Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Profile Image for John Blumenthal.
Author 10 books98 followers
March 28, 2019
I was stoned when I read this so I have absolutely no idea what it was even about. Just kidding. Tom Wolfe at his best. Loved it from the very first line: “That’s good thinking there Cool Breeze.”
Profile Image for Rick Skwiot.
Author 8 books29 followers
November 20, 2012
I had forgotten (successfully) how pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, self-absorbed, and self-righteous hippies were. Maybe, as a full-fledged member of the If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It Generation, I was subconsciously embarrassed by my own pretentiousness, pseudo-intellectuality, self-absorption, and self-righteousness in those days.

But I recently restored my suppressed memory by hooking down Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," first published in 1968. The book I had avoided for thirty years despite glowing recommendations by assorted fellow travelers gave me a flashback that was, well, a bummer. But my reaction only testifies to the power of a work considered by many a nonfiction classic.

In 1966 Wolfe, who later penned The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, set out to capture in print the essence of the acid-dropping Californian hippie cult led by Ken Kesey, the Typhoid Mary of LSD and author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion." To do so Wolfe employed the techniques of "new journalism" that he, along with Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, and others were then developing to produce nonfiction works that read like novels.

Like a novel, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" uses scene-by-scene construction, records full dialogue, provides the thoughts and emotions of the subjects, and describes in detail their behavior and possessions.

And, like a novel, it puts you there, in the midst of Kesey and his Merry Pranksters: in their Day-Glo bus careening across America, at their acid-laced parties, in their drug-addled minds. Instead of telling you what happened via objective narrative like most journalists, Wolfe shows you, infesting you with all the atmospheric and sensual details. And it works, at least in my case, only too well.

Through a rich, slangy, neologistic stream of consciousness, Wolfe compellingly portrays the insanity, duplicity ("Never trust a Prankster"), and manic, existential muddle of Prankster communal life: The glee in being weird and offensive, the pride in being "cosmic" and unintelligible; the cult-like worship of the charismatic Kesey, and the inevitable crackups, to which the remaining Pranksters remain strikingly callous.

But Wolfe also ably renders the captivating transcendence of the hippie experience: the high energy, high spirits, humor, and creativity--which, for the Merry Pranksters, owed so much to Kesey's wit and inventiveness. For a brief moment it made me long for the days when you could be openly outrageous, say most anything you damned well pleased to anyone, and live free and wild. Maybe even for more than a brief moment.

It made me wish I had been there when some shortsighted Berkeley anti-war-rally organizer invited the celebrated Kesey to speak. But instead of mimicking the militant tone of previous speakers, Kesey, in orange coat and Day-Glo World War I helmet, came to the microphone with a harmonica. Accompanied by the Pranksters' makeshift band, he played "Home on the Range," likened the previous speaker to Mussolini, and chided the 20,000 ralliers:

"Me! Me! Me!...That's the cry of the ego and the cry of this rally!...Me! Me! Me!...Yep, you're playing their game."

Ah, the good old days.

Wolfe then goes on to encapsulate the scene and capture its spirit in his conversational prose:

"--and the crowd starts going into a slump. It's as if the rally, the whole day, has been one long careful inflation of a helium balloon, preparing to take off--and suddenly somebody has pulled a plug. It's not what [Kesey] is saying, either. It's the sound and the freaking sight and that goddamn mournful harmonica and that stupid Chinese music by the freaks standing up behind him. It's the only thing the martial spirit can't stand--a put-on, a prank, a shuck, a goose in the anus."

No, not traditional, objective reportage, but something more, something that cuts to the heart of the moment and tells a deeper truth.

Wolfe nonetheless manages to do all this full-immersion, colloquial reporting without taking sides, without preaching, advocating, or admonishing. Along with the pandemonium and celebrity and wild joyousness of the Merry Pranksters, he shows you the psychotic reactions, the Hell's Angels gang bangs, and the betrayals. And you believe every word of it, even when his minutely detailed reporting and at times overly rich prose become tedious.

But, as in fiction, the details are everything. And the only way to get them right is to do your homework, which Wolfe did in spades. In addition to on-the-scene reporting and the usual documentary research, he conducted interviews with Kesey, various Pranksters, and others on the scene, such as writers Larry McMurtry, Hunter Thompson, and Robert Stone. He delved into Prankster archives--films, tapes, letters, diaries, photos--and into Prankster minds.

In an author's note at the book's end, Wolfe writes: "I have tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to re-create the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it. I don't think their adventure can be understood without that."

In "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" Wolfe succeeds in re-creating the megalomaniacal atmosphere of a movement that profoundly changed our culture. In it he reveals the roots of the mass drug-taking and mass permissiveness that linger yet today.

Kesey's own story in the interim seems a sad microcosm of our culture: After his LSD experiences he never wrote another work that approached the verve and sweep of his first two novels. Later, from his website, he sold Prankster memorabilia, films, and T-shirts reading "Never Trust a Prankster."
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