57 pages • 1 hour readTom Wolfe
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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a 1968 nonfiction book by American author Tom Wolfe about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, a group that spearheaded the counterculture’s interest in psychedelic drugs. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters traveled across the country in a colorfully painted school bus and began hosting Acid Tests—parties centered around LSD, live rock music, and lighting. As the book progresses, Kesey, who was an author and celebrity, grows increasingly paranoid and is hunted by police and the FBI in both the USA and Mexico. The book is an important work of New Journalism, a style that arose in the 1960s and 1970s blurring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. This study guide is based on the first edition of the book.
Kesey was a star athlete growing up in Oregon, and he studied in a graduate program in creative writing at Stanford University in the late 1950s. While there, he becomes part of a lively and bohemian intellectual circle. He also takes part in clinical experiments with psychotomimetic drugs—drugs thought to mimic the effects of psychosis. During these experiments, Kesey uses LSD for the first time. He finds the experience enlightening, and he begins introducing it to his friends. He also takes a job as an overnight orderly on the psychiatric ward of the hospital, which provides the inspiration for his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
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In 1963, Kesey moves with his wife, Faye, and their kids to La Honda, California. He finishes his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, in La Honda and begins inviting friends to live there communally with him. Kesey and his group of friends, now known as the Merry Pranksters, buy an old school bus, paint it in Day-Glo colors, and rig it with an elaborate sound system with the idea of driving to New York, where they can be on hand for the publication of Kesey’s novel and see the World’s Fair.
When they return from their psychedelic road trip, Kesey and the Pranksters intensify their experiments with mind-altering drugs and hold wild parties. In order to turn the world onto LSD, and knowing that it is still legal in California, they come up with the idea of the Acid Tests, a series of parties where LSD is distributed. Over the next several months, the Pranksters perfect the Acid Tests to include live music (often that of the Grateful Dead), strobe lights, black lights, and film projections.
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Kesey is arrested for marijuana possession in April of 1965 and a second time the following January. Facing a possible five-year jail sentence, Kesey and the Pranksters fake his suicide and he flees to Mexico, crossing the border hidden in a panel truck. Several Pranksters join him in Mexico, but he remains paranoid and feels that he is being surveilled. After eight months, Kesey secretly returns to the US, crossing the border while disguised as a country-western musician. Kesey eventually begins coming out into the open, popping up here and there, but keeping his location secret. In October of 1966, the FBI catches up with him after a foot chase outside of San Francisco. Now facing three felonies, Kesey is able to make bail with a promise to federal authorities that he will tell people not to use acid—to move beyond it. This message is the centerpiece of the Pranksters’ Acid Test Graduation ceremony, which is billed as an Acid Test without LSD. The Graduation draws a huge crowd, including many reporters, but the event leaves many in San Francisco wondering if Kesey is sincere about his “beyond acid” message.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test begins at the end of this story—with Wolfe accompanying a group of oddly dressed Pranksters in the back of a pickup truck to meet Kesey, who has recently been released on bail. Told in the first person, the opening sections describe Kesey’s subjective response to the strange world he has entered. The rest of the book, detailing the origins of the Pranksters, their road trip, and the events leading up to Kesey’s arrest, is told in the third person and is based on interviews that Wolfe conducted with members of the group.
By Tom Wolfe