In what sense does `The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test` represent a critique of the U.S. Counter Culture of the 1960s? Essay


The book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test “narrates about Merry Pranksters, name given to the followers of Kesey who made a cross-country voyage in a multicoloured school bus to attend the New York World’s Fair. It also narrated the prolonged experiences by Kesey and the Pranksters with LSD to attempt to attain a “group mind” experiment that resulted to the infamous LSD- laced and multimedia filled ‘acid tests’ of 1965. This essay makes a review of the above book in detail.

In what sense does `The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test` represent a critique of the U.S. Counter Culture of the 1960s?

            The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was written by Tom Wolfe and published by Farrar Strauss and Giroux in 1968. The book is a non-fiction novel which narrates about Ken Kesey , who has authored a novel “ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest “ who was the leader of a group of hippies which christened themselves as the Merry Pranksters. This book offers most reflective perceptiveness into development of the hippy subculture in 1960’s in U.S.A.

            The book narrates about Merry Pranksters, name given to the followers of Kesey who made a cross-country voyage in a multicoloured school bus to attend the New York World’s Fair. It also narrated the prolonged experiences by Kesey and the Pranksters with LSD to attempt to attain a “group mind” experiment that resulted to the infamous LSD- laced and multimedia filled ‘acid tests’ of 1965.

            The acid test owed their name from a card that was employed to sponsor the first production and that featured a customary armed forces recruiting with the picture of Uncle Sam with the words “Can You Pass the Acid Test?” (Lawlor, 2005, P.231).

            Wolfe wrote this book on a number of materials collected from films, interviews, cassettes, diaries and letters which he embedded into his non-fiction. Wolfe wrote that he attempted not only to narrate what the Pranksters (hippies) did but to reconstruct subjective reality or the mental atmosphere (Zdovc, 2008, p.55).

            Wolfe was tempted to narrate about Kesey’s ordeal with police who were chasing him especially for trafficking marijuana. Wolfe wondered how a promising writer once was compelled to turn as a fugitive. The main theme of this non-fiction novel may be described as an inevitable downfall of the Pranksters group which no more intended to draw demarcation between the outer world and their subjective reality.

            Wolfe tried to exhibit that this non-fiction is more than a simple story which narrates about hippie group of odd eccentrics from California. Wolfe cited whirlpool metaphor from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story namely “Decent into the Maelstrom” in which the author portrayed how a fisherman survived an ocean storm whereas his brother lost in a whirlpool. Thus, Wolfe symbolises as of unknown and endless of Kesey’s involvement in hippie group like how fisherman’s brother dies in a whirlpool (Wolfe, 1968, p.113).

            Wolfe’s non-fiction opens and ends with Wolfe’s meeting with some Pranksters and Kesey. Kesey unravels to Wolfe about his strategy to forewarn San Francisco about the perils of LSD.  Kesey is of the view that that drug may unlock the gate to perception, but one must go beyond that. In this book, Wolfe portrays the tale of the Pranksters from their scratch until the arrest of Kesey. He primarily spotlights on the period between 1960 when Kesey first consumes LSD as a hospital patient guinea pig and later in 1966, when he ends up in lockup.

            Due to influence of drugs, Kesey was of the view that the sky was a hole that goes beyond the endless prospects of experiences (Wolfe, 1968, p.112). Wolfe often used to reiterate the sentence “You’re either on the bus or else you are off the bus” where the bus is a replica of voyaging and the individual’s exploration for himself.

            Wolfe’s non-fiction lucidly explains their $103 thousand voyage across America. Wolfe also describes the sway that the Pranksters had on significant rock musicians like the link to the Hell’s Angels, Grateful Dead and  a chain of “ acid tests “ during which the Pranksters gave many audience large quantity of LSD mixed with Kool-aid.

            In the last section of the book, Wolfe narrates Kesey’s journey to Mexico in order to escape prosecution for trafficking marijuana.  Wolfe then narrates the Kesey’s testimonials about how it is essential to go beyond consuming LSD. The book concludes with a narration of dissolving of Pranksters and Kesey’s loneliness in Oregon.

            In this book, Wolfe demonstrates the social period and the conduct of some specific individuals. Wolfe patiently hears to the feelings, philosophies and thoughts of his heroes and reader gets an idea that he is also a part of the action.  At sometimes, Wolfe understood the Pranksters and some time, he was more sceptical of them.

            Thus , Wolfe has the double vision as he visualises Kesey as a real religious leader and a protrusion of a comic –book daydream –both Captain Marvel and Buddha. Wolfe desired to exhibit the subjective veracity of his subjects and the efforts to accomplish this through stream –of –awareness intended to re-establish their internal experience.

            Further, Wolfe delightedly portrays the oddness of language employed by the Pranksters that distinguished them from conventional American society. The Pranksters wanted to shed their middle-class social identity and hence, Wolfe called them by nick name like Hermit and Mountain girl.

            Wolf narrates how Pranksters used the stream –of- consciousness and internal monologue and through this, he attempts to demonstrate how Kesey was becoming progressively more suspicious as he was in panic that the Mexican police would book him at any time. (Zdovc, 2008, p.60).

            Wolfe non-fiction gave conventional America an insider’s good judgment of mushrooming hippie culture in 1968 that had widely practiced in California and in parts of North America and Western Europe. Wolf’s book also can be explained as a mixture of both fiction and non-fiction and hence it was at the cutting edge and famously known as “The New Journalism.”  Wolf book offers the single paramount account for realising the context of the West Coast sociological dynamic that led up to and established the counterculture.  (MacFarlane, 2007, p.106).

            Wolfe points out that majority of Pranksters were young people belonging to middle class who were revolting against their own class regulations and power structures. They recoiled at the Hell’s Angel’s lawless violence which crossed threshold of their own upbringing. Pranksters regarded reality and action as figurative and symbolic, vibrant with meaning.

            Wolfe’s book can be described as am account of Prankster’s overexcitement, their cross –country voyage in which the balmily dressed , acid-addled troupe confronted consensus actuality with hit and run guerrilla theatre..

            One of the confronts in narrating through a non-fictional account of living persons is the peril of libel and peril through a poor intersubjective rendition –of using characterisation that don’t narrates adequately either the character or motivation of individuals being portrayed. Further, the level of access offered to Wolfe by the subjects differed. Some Pranksters exchanged highly personal details of their thoughts actions, beliefs, feelings, while some Pranksters allowed very minimal access. This had direct impact on the core depth Wolfe was able to create for these real characters.  Thus, in the concluding section of the book, by way of Authors note, Wolfe mentioned that one Prankster Sandy detailed him about Prankster days in full and with in-depth detail. Finally, Sandy left the Pranksters to return back to New York for mental treatment. (Wolfe, 1968, p.108).

            Kesey who was married and got two children also became the father of Mountain Girl’s baby during their cross-country voyage. Wolfe has not portrayed this in his book. Further, When Kesey was in Mexico, he had relations with one Black Maria. However, Wolfe never exposed these facts in his book. This may be due to the fact that either Wolf was having a fear to ask about this or Kesey was too cautious to exchange with Wolfe his attitudes and feelings towards these various women relationships who are all significant personalities in the protagonist’s  life and in the Prankster’s case.

            Wolfe’s description about Kesey’s wife is complimenting. “Faye has sorrel, long brown hair and is one of the beautiful women I ever witnessed. She looks saintly and radiantly. (Wolfe, 1968,p.23).  However, the reader never gets any closer view of Faye and about her feelings on her husband’s fascination towards Pranksters movement or philandering.  Wolfe accept the confronts and restrictions inherent to honouring the privacy of real individuals. He speaks out that there are some provinces where journalism still cannot penetrate into easily especially for reasons of invasion of privacy and hence it is in this province that the novel will be able to flourish in the future.  This is highly significant factor distinguishing fiction and non-fiction, but it is only relevant to those novels using the modalities of literary realism ascribed to by Wolfe. (MacFarlane, 2007,p.110).

            Sandy’s acute psychological distress was that while attempting to the cross-country voyage which came across with realistic and riveting clarity.  He was suffering from immense sessions of paranoia worsened by insomnia and LSD. Kesey though called by his colleagues as chief but he was a non-leader and a non-navigator. As the sponsor of bus trip, he becomes the issue of a psychotic power struggle in the minds of Sandy. The power politics exhibits in many unusual flare-ups narrated in the story. Thus, Sandy oscillates from being “on the bus’ to ‘off the bus’. Due to this Sandy’s predisposition, Kesey used to call him as “dis-MOUNT.’  This shows that Pranksters is fond of nick names. Thus, the story of Sandy’s inner anguish flares up during the bus trip.

            The Pranksters now understood that Sandy was in a bad mood. Kesey had a saying.’ Feed the hungry bee.” So the Pranksters started to shower —- Attention on Sandy, to try to offer him a sense of being at the cool centre of the whole thing.  However, he misunderstood their gesticulations. Why are they staring? (Wolfe, 1968, p.105).

Wolfe does not explicitly inflict his own political view points or opinions in this book. Wolfe would prefer to downgrade the psychedelic group to the lunatic fringe of American cultural familiarity. However, Kesey commented that Wolfe’s writing being mostly concern with itself.  Actually , Wolfe’s creative literary skill bring the incidence of his narrative to real life by inflicting spells of thoughts and varied points of view into the characters.

            In fact, Wolfe was succeeded and able to depict the world of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters which was more impressive. Further, Wolfe was not an insider and was never a hippie and graciously refused to drop acid. The book portrayed a great number of characters, pictured the ingredient parts of the pioneering corner of the hippie counterculture and successful in narrating the Pranksters’ rambling story. This non-fiction displayed Wolfe’s excellent reportorial acumen, awareness to detail, excellent command over language and talents of sociological study. Wolfe was hindered by being a third party to the Prankster society and by the intrinsic restrictions of trying to subjectively demonstrate what he described as the ‘mental environment’ of these virtual characters.

            Wolfe commented that when writing this book, he frequently shifted wantonly from his narrator’s all-knowing voice into a torrent of awareness point –of-view from the minds of his other characters.


Lawlor William. (2005). Beat Culture. New York: ABC –CLIO.

MacFarlane Scott. (2007). The Hippie Narrative. New York: McFarland.

Wolfe Tom. (1968). The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. New York: Bantam.

Zdovc Sonja Merljak. (2008).Literary Journalism in the United States of America and Slovenia. New York: University Press of America