I made cookies yesterday! Everything is wonderful!
I just finished this book, and my head is still like… what? You’d think after all of my hippie father’s stories, something like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test wouldn’t faze me, but it did.
If it had been written in a more straight-forward manner, I think it would have been okay, but Wolfe was really, really trying to get the reader into the acid test experience and, for words on a page, did a pretty stellar job. It wasn’t always pleasant, though.
Massive paragraphs made of one long sentence. Poetry inserts. Em-dashes and en-dashes and colons in rows, almost at random. Double conversations occurring at the same time, double descriptions. It was a lot to digest, a lot to process. And it often dragged me through faster than I could read because it was so very frantic in its pacing.
If you have read this book, you might be wondering why I chose this particular text as part of my travel literature curriculum. It’s a simple answer: I am a naive fool.
I was researching best travel literature when I was compiling my list and TEKAAT came up a few times, then surfaced on this map, which had many other books I had read on it that were, indeed, travel novels, so I figured it was safe.
Spoiler: I was lied to. This is not a travel novel.
No, it as a long-form news article covering the social phenomenon of Ken Kesey, his Merry Pranksters, and LSD in America. Which makes sense, as Tom Wolfe was a journalist.
Not only was Tom Wolfe a journalist, Tom Wolfe is one of two journalists credited with founding the journalistic movement of “New Journalism.” (Which I would argue isn’t accurate, as New Journalism was around in the late 1800s and in the 1920s under the same name and same style of writing, but whatever. Wikipedia reigns supreme.)
New Journalism is a popular (even today–especially today) style of journalism where the journalist immerses him- or herself in the life/lives of the person/people s/he is reporting on. They try to blend in so thoroughly, that they start becoming part of the background of the subject’s life, and thus can report on their lives and behaviors without impacting their lives or behaviors.
It’s also a style of writing. It’s more narrative, less “the basic facts.” It tries to draw the reader into the experience of the subject’s life and behaviors. It wants to put the reader right next to the subject, so they can understand and emphasize. Or whatever it is the journalist is trying to express on the subject.
I only mention this because it’s closely related to a passionate subject of mine (David Foster Wallace and his complete inability to have something resembling ethics when it came to his “journalism”) and is a neat tidbit on the evolution of journalism.
This not-a-travel-book did have moments of travel in it, though they were far, far in the background when compared to the pranks and tootling of Kesey and his Pranksters. They did cross the country, Kesey did flee to Mexico, and there were some briefly mentioned travels in Mexico.
Other than that? Eh. Lots of drugs, lots of stories of people’s experiences on drugs. Wolfe did an amazing amount of research and interviews to cobble together what I can only assume was a total mess of information. His Author’s Note in the back talks about diaries from various Pranksters and tapes he had to listen to in order to put things together and, really, can you imagine how annoying it must be to read not only one sixty-page diary, but like eight sixty-page diaries detailing some acid head’s thoughts from one acid trip?
And then you’ve got like… this ever-shifting amount of Pranksters. And all of their recorded notes, drawings, interview tapes, and… yeah. Alongside all of that, Kesey was filming The Movie (as he called it) and from the one cross-country trip alone (which only covered a couple chapters), there was over 450 hours of footage. And that was only a small part of the footage taken in for The Movie.
It sounds nuts. Wolfe was a trooper.
Anyway, as this wasn’t a travel book, I feel silly reviewing/analyzing it as if it was a travel book. I’m going to give you some examples of what reading this book was like, so you too can share the “acid experience,” and then the both of us can get on with our lives.
“Those cold goddamned silver slivers . . . and the light rises in the garage, a cockroach orange dimness, and there is perfect silence, the world stroked out this way and that as in . . . Lucite . . . And the heat of the day creeps in, and rising out of the funk and the musk and the Rat grease smears–now come the cinches, mites, crab lice, fleas, fruit flies, grubs, weevils, all the microbes and larval ooze–and start writhing and crawling and festering and frying and wriggling and sizzling. The straight world breathes in, coughs, gags, spaghetti trapped in every glottis and flapping in panic . . .”
“GRAB THE CORNEL WILDE RUNNING JACKET, FOOL! MAKE THE BRAIN CATCH HOLD! RRRRRRRRRRRRRRREVREVREVREV SPINNING AND IN THE GIANT PYRAMIDAL CELLS OF BETZ OF PRE-CENTRAL CORTEX RISE AND HEAVE AND SLIP GANGLIONIC LAYER SHUDDERS AND GIGGLES SYNAPSES LIGHT LIKE RANDOM BEATLE FLASHBULBS KHEEWWW BLASTING OUT SILLY FROM MOTOR HOMUNCULUS YOU MISSED YR FLASH OH MIGHT MASTICATOR, SALIVATOR, VOCALIZER, SWALLOWER, LICKER, BITER SUCKER BROW-KNITTER LOOKER BLINKER RUBBERNECKER THUMBER PRODDER UP-YOURS FINGERER RINGWEARER NOSEPICKER WAVER DRINKER ARMLIFTER BODYBENDER HIPSWIVELER KNEER SPRINGER RUNNER ZERO::::::::OOOOOOOOO:::::::: RUN!”
“The border at Tijuana is like a huge superhighway toll station, a huge concrete apron and ten of fifteen customs booths in a row for all the cars pouring over into Tijuana from San Diego and points north, all plastic green and concrete like part of suburban superhighway America.”
“‘There are going to be times,’ says Kesey, ‘when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place–then it won’t make a damn.’ And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: ‘You’re either on the bus . . . or off the bus.'”