Author: Thomas Wolfe
Book: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Publisher: Collins Publisher, 1967
For class today we read and discussed the first part of the nonfiction book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, written by Thomas Wolfe (see fig. 1). Wolfe was a well-known American novelist, though this particular piece of work is often labeled under New Journalism with its unconventional techniques. In this account, Wolfe describes the experiences of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who flourished in the 1960’s in their use and promotion of LSD and other psychedelic drugs.
Wolfe traveled with the Merry Pranksters and joined them in their experiences in order to gain material for his book. For this reason, he received a great deal of criticism for spending too much time in his story. It raises the ethical question: how active of a part is a journalist allowed to play in the story he is writing about? How much is he allowed to participate and influence his subjects before it no longer becomes a completely accurate depiction?
According to our teacher, Wolfe claimed once that his time with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters was the most fun he had in his entire life. Wolfe even describes the change the people have on him: “I am beginning to feel stolid. Back in New York City, Black Maria, I tell you, I am even known as something of a dude. But somehow a blue silk blazer and a big tie with clowns on it and…a…pair of shiny lowcut black shoes don’t set them all to doing the Varsity Rag in the head world in San Francisco” (3).
Clearly he was not just quietly observing and taking notes, but engaging himself in the culture surrounding the drug-worshiping group (see fig. 2). While his book does offer a very detailed and descriptive account, one must question how much of the story is his story versus an account of his subjects.
Wolfe had a very unique style when writing this book. He uses language to express the sporadic nature that surrounded the Pranksters as they tripped on LSD and other acids. His sentences jump back and forth between different ideas and don’t follow any consistent structure, representing the scattered thoughts a person might have while tripping. An example of this is: “The hierarchy ascends from there, although practically all lowcut shoes are unhip, from there on up to the boots the heads like, light, fanciful boots, English boots of the mod variety, if that is all they can get, but better something like hand-tooled Mexican boots with Caliente Dude Triple A toes on them” (3).
Another element that Wolfe incorporates in his text is the use of dashes and ellipses. He frequently employs these two features in his writing, which add to the scattered and sporadic nature of his language. Sometimes, he uses these to shift abruptly between two sentences without even finishing a thought. This is evident when he writes, “And, oh yeah, there’s a long-barreled Colt .45 revolver in her hand, only nobody on the street can tell it’s a cap pistol as she pegs away, kheeew, kheew, at the erupting marshmallow faces like Debra Paget in…in… -Kesey’s coming out of jail!” (2). (see fig. 3)
He used this punctuation to control the pace and timing of a scene, and to represent the fact that people thought and talked in elliptical patterns, according to Marc Weingarten in The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight. He also uses a nonlinear fashion in order to recreate the atmosphere.
Wolfe uses a fair amount of dialogue in the book, though in keeping with his style, it is haphazardly placed with the other descriptions. He also uses very few attributions or tags on the quotes that he offers, leaving the reader to figure it out for themselves or not worry about who specifically said a line. Sometimes he does incorporate a longer conversation, as exemplified with the back-and-forth discussion between Mountain Girl and Lois Jennings about her crying baby (15).
Another unique feature that Wolfe employs is the way he addresses specific people in the actual writing itself. The very first sentence of the book is a statement directed at a figure in the book: “That’s good thinking there, Cool Breeze” (1). He makes similar direct statements to Cool Breeze repeatedly throughout the first chapter.
Wolfe also repeatedly writes in the present tense, although it is not entirely consistent throughout. In one paragraph he shifts from past tense, “The elevator opened” to present tense, “Then I pick out Kesey” (7). This shift just adds to all of the other features that Wolfe employs in his style to offer a very “electric kool-aid acid test” experience for the reader.