Tom Wolfe, a member of the New Journalism movement, in his novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, catalogs the experience of Ken Kesey and his followers, the Merry Pranksters, as they travel across the country in a bus doing acid, speed, and other drugs in search of new experiences. Wolfe “tried not only to tell what the Prankster’s did, but to recreate the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it, without which their adventure cannot be understood (Wolfe, Author’s note).” He achieves this goal by capturing their moods and their drug trips—portraying the world as he saw it through their eyes. He displays the wildness, the pranksters’ vivid experiences, and the quasi-religious aspects of their journeys. While Wolfe has been criticized for artificial style, he attempts to capture the experience through the writing style which he adopts as he guides the audience through the counter-cultural world.
Walter Kaufman, who wrote a detailed account of existentialism, characterized the Russian existentialist Dostoevsky’s writing in a manner that perfectly describes Wolfe’s stylistic choices. Kaufman notes that “The atmosphere of Dostoevsky’s Notes [From Underground] is not one of soft voices and dim lights: the voice could not be shriller, the light not more glaring (Kaufman, 15).” Dostoevsky wrote with intensity, focusing in on the pain and stubbornness of the main character to make his points about the problems with conformity. Wolfe’s development of the scene in relation to the characters, rather than an emphasis on the characters alone, creates the tone, drawing the reader in. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test intense colors and fluorescent light permeate the reader’s consciousness, forcing the reader into the Merry Pranksters’ drug induced perspective, allowing Wolfe to place the culture in its historical context.
Although Wolfe only took acid once before writing the book, he writes as though he actually experienced the drug induced sensations. With splashes of dizzying color, he paints the merry pranksters’ world in “explosive beams of sunball red and sunball silver-white” enhancing each scene with synesthesia and vivid images (Wolfe, 95). His writing centers primarily on conveying the atmosphere and thoughts which drive the members of the counter-culture, through his use of strange grammar, repeated words and phrases, and unusual punctuation. Through his stylistic choices Wolfe recreates life as seen by the pranksters, holding true to the characteristics of New Journalism and Realism. “The realist impulse as Tom Wolfe described it, is to show the reader real life, ‘Come here! Look! This is the way people live these days! These are the things they do! (Eason, 193)” Ultimately, Wolfe writes to describe the culture of the “Beautiful People” for the middle-Americans, for the people who would not even consider doing drugs— for the “mothers all over California, all over America [who] got to know the beautiful people letter by heart” and in whose hearts “instinctively [goes] up the adrenal shriek: beatniks, bums, spades- dope (Wolfe, 135).”
Dwight Macdonald in his essay Parajournalism or Tom Wolfe and his Magic Writing Machine, claims that Wolfe represents a new genre of writing known as “parajournalism [which] at its best [makes] no pretense of factuality but sketch[es] with humor and poignancy urban dilemmas that one recognizes as real(Macdonald, 225).” He goes on to note that characters within this style of writing “are not persons, but personae, (‘artificial characters in a play or novel’—or in parajournalistic reportage) which have been manufactured for public consumption with their enthusiastic cooperation. Notions of truth or accuracy are irrelevant in such a context of collusive fabrication on both sides; all that matters to anybody…is that it be a good story (Macdonald, 231).” While Wolfe did write The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with the cooperation of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Wolfe tries to capture a greater truth through his stylistic choices and his characterization of the drug-culture. Although Macdonald criticized Wolfe for his gaudy commercialization of counter-culture based on sensationalistic writing, as David Eason points out, the New Journalists were actually characterized by their use of “the image-world as a background for the significance of counter-culture, political campaigns and conventions, prison rebellions, executions, and other spectacular events (Eason, 191).” Wolfe insists in the author’s note that he was attempting to capture the “subjective reality” of the counterculture, the cultural and social impact interwoven with actual experience.
While it would be hard to call The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test true objective journalism, Wolfe was not purposefully turning the Merry Prankster’s into what Macdonald calls “kitsch,” or manufactured culture, but instead hoped to capture the atmosphere in the greater context of history and society. Wolfe’s portrayal of sub-culture through his development of scene lends truth to the culture he depicts. Macdonald also critiqued Wolfe’s unusual style. Noting that the Wolfe’s writing “is amusing if one reads it in the way it was written, hastily or loosely, skipping paragraphs, or pages when the jazzed up style and mock-sociological pronouncements become oppressive…Since elaboration rather than development are Wolfe’s forte, anything you miss will be repeated later, with bells on (225, Macdonald).” In some ways, Macdonald’s assessment holds true, because Wolfe’s writing often seems unnecessarily repetitive and detailed. However, without Wolfe’s distinct portrayal of the scene, the average middle-American reader would have less of an authentic idea of what it felt like to be there. Wolfe’s repetition of words and crazed use of punctuation enhance the reader’s understanding of the experience. While one could still glean the same story from the book without Wolfe’s unusual stylistic choices, the story seems more authentic because of them. Wolfe does not remain objective, but he does capture the true nature of the movement through extensive detail.
Wolfe holds a few views that are similar to the existentialists of the post-enlightenment and romantic periods in Europe. His approach to the Merry Pranksters parallels proto-existentialist Kierkegaard’s take on general society and organized religion. “Kierkegaard attacks the proud tradition of theology, ethics, and metaphysics as a kind of whistling in the dark, as self-deception, as an unrelenting effort to conceal crucial decisions that we have made and must make behind a web of wholly secondary, and at times invalid, demonstrations. (Kaufman, 17)” Wolfe often condescends to the pseudo-religious aspects of the counter-culture, examining them in-depth, but finding them lacking in substance beyond their extensive drug use. Wolfe repeatedly compares them to the beginnings organized religion. He “remembers puzzling over this…something so religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it, there was just a group of people who shared unusual psychological state, the LSD experience (Wolfe).” Wolfe goes on to indicate that other religious groups started out in nearly the same way—with individuals experiencing ecstatic revelations and sharing their experience with others. He claims, that “for all the Pranksters, as [he has] tried to show, the events in this book were both a group adventure and a personal exploration,” with many achieving insight on both levels (Author’s note, Wolfe). Although Wolfe recognizes the lack of lasting substance in many counter-cultures, Wolfe hoped to capture the significance and historic role of counter cultures. Wolfe’s sensationalistic writing makes it seem as though he is capitalizing on the “kitsch” factor of counter-culture in order to sell novels to middle-America, but Wolfe also seems to believe in the genuine experiences that each prankster went through. However, he also notes the void left after the drugs are removed from the scene. Wolfe’s criticism of the validity of the movement is similar to Nietzsche’s criticism of the enlightenment, which could be considered a counter-cultural movement. Nietzsche felt that the dogged rationalism of the enlightenment, which replaced Christianity, left a void similar to that of the drugs for the Merry Pranksters. For Nietzsche, scientific thought replaced Christianity without providing a new moral code. For the Merry Pranksters, the lack of drugs and shared LSD experiences, made their movement meaningless beyond the transcendental phrases which they spouted at every opportunity.
Wolfe writes for the middle-American, bringing understanding for a culture which they cannot comprehend. While he clearly writes to entertain, he also writes to inform, establishing the role of counter-culture in society, and demonstrating its impermanence as well as its cyclical reoccurrence. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test reflects Eason’s belief that “social reality may indeed be bizarre, but it poses no threat to established ways of knowing and communicating (Eason, 194).” Whereas other books at the time portrayed the drug-culture as the ruin of society, Wolfe indicates that counter-culture appears again and again, but is conquered by the mainstream each time.