The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Summary and Analysis
by Tom Wolfe
"The Rusky-Dusky Neon Dust" & "The Bus"
Through some lines of semi-ironic poetry, Wolfe describes the setting of Kesey's house in the woods of La Honda, California. It is a typical rural Western town, just down the road from Palo Alto. Some of the landmarks of the place, like the Hilltop Motel, offer traveling tourists a homey touch of the Wild West - yet it is a West that has been sanitized. But this is not how Kesey is, Wolfe says. In La Honda, they've never seen anything like him before.
Wolfe recounts the days, early in 1964, when Kesey, along with his family, his friend George Walker, and a young guy, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, whom Kesey rescued from insanity in New York, all lived in the house in La Honda. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is enjoying great commercial success, having been adapted into a Broadway play staring Michael Douglas. Kesey is finishing up his new novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, and Wolfe paints the California woods where Kesey's house is as an idyllic place.
Kesey and his friends are living the romantic notion of life in the woods, and feel entirely one with nature. What Kesey is really interested in, however, is not nature, but rather the experiments he is beginning to organize inside his house, experiments regarding the worlds that LSD can open up within a person. His friends from Perry Lane begin to come up to La Honda to participate in the experiments, and they all take LSD while walking through the woods or creating visual art projects and avant-garde sound recordings with equipment in Kesey's living room.
During a walk in the woods, the group stumbles upon some old carved wooden chess pieces that were left outside and are now warped and disfigured. The group begins to "rap" with the pieces, creating an improvisational conversation between themselves and the pieces. Their conversation is filled with a mixture of sexual confusion and gibberish, words strung together in a way that makes little sense to anyone not on LSD. Wolfe describes it as the realization of "intersubjectivity, as if our consciousnesses have opened up and flowed together and now one has only to look at a flicker of the other's mouth or eye or at the chessman he holds in his hand..."
Though the group is breaking new ground through their drug-induced experimentations, some members of the former Perry Lane group grow uneasy. During one experiment, one of the group comments that "we used to be equals. Now it's Kesey's trip. We go to his place. We take his acid. We do what he wants." Kesey is now the self-proclaimed leader of the group, and his plans include trying to get everyone to move to his place in La Honda. His log cabin has become a kind of hippie "Versailles," and Kesey is preparing to venture further into self-experimentation.
The group at Kesey's begins to grow. Neil Cassady, Page Browning, Mike Hagen, Kenneth Babbs, and others who will ultimately make up the group known as the Merry Pranksters gather, all continuing their LSD experiments. The residents of La Honda are beginning to get nervous about the group, and start asking questions about why they are here and what they are doing. The group responds by asking how the townspeople can know when their minds haven't been opened up with LSD.
Wolfe recounts the story of a night when Bob Stone, a member of Kesey's creative writing class at Stanford, was called from La Honda by Babbs. Babbs insists that Stone come to Kesey's house to "get something going," but Stone resists. Eventually he relents, and when he arrives at Kesey's he finds the group dancing and beating drums, with crazy lights flashing, singing a song of "The Intrepid Traveler" and his "band of Merry Pranksters."
In the spring of '64 Kesey and the Pranksters buy an old schoolbus that has been converted with beds and a sink for a trip they are planning to visit New York's World Fair in July. The Pranksters go to work on the bus, painting it and putting intricate wiring and sound systems into it so that they can experience all of the sounds "outside the bus, inside the bus, or inside your own freaking larynx" and "rap" off those sounds.
On their first trip into Northern California on the bus the entire group gets stoned on LSD and begins to experience a burning forest around them. It is not clear whether they are seeing a real forest fire, or are simply hallucinating. What is real, however, is the state patrol officer that pulls the bus over for erratic driving. Cassady, who is driving, begins a long, confusing speech on the nature of the bus while the rest of the Pranksters, wearing neon masks, roll around in the grass on the side of the road. The officer is utterly confused and asks the group whether they are part of the carnival, to which they respond in the affirmative. The officer lets the group go with only a warning, thus fueling their belief that they truly are invincible.
After the bus breaks down in San Jose, the group begins to make plans for their big trip East, and stops in San Juan Capistrano at Babbs' house. Kesey decides that on this trip, "everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there's not going to be anything to apologize about." After making this decision, they are off on their crazy trip, flying East down the highway. Cassady tells stories about the cars that pass them by.
The group stops in Arizona to take (and film) their first acid trip. Kesey, Babbs, and Paula Sundstein all take acid while other members of the Pranksters film the trip. Paula dives into a lake and comes up with mud and grass in her hair, and all of the Pranksters go wild. The filming continues on the road, and the group pulls into Phoenix. It's 1964 and Barry Goldwater is running for President, so the group attaches signs to the bus that say "A Vote for Barry is a Vote for Fun" and ride up and down the streets of Phoenix, annoying the citizens, but sparking interest nonetheless. Each member of the group gets his or her own nickname, and the trip continues.
The entire group is becoming quite sleep-deprived because of the bouncing of the bus and the cocktail of drugs they take to keep them awake. They pull into a gas station to fill up, but the gas station attendant doesn't want all of the Pranksters using the station's restroom. Kesey and the attendant have a verbal spar while the Pranksters file into the bathroom. One of the Pranksters, the Beauty Witch, has taken to going "stark naked," and when the group arrives in Houston, Texas at Larry McMurtry's house, she jumps out of the bus naked and embraces McMurtry's son, thinking he is her lost son. This is when the group realizes that this woman "had completed her trip. She had done with the flow. She had gone stark raving mad."
Kesey's house in the woods at La Honda recalls earlier notions of counter-cultural activity dating all the way back to Thoreau and his experiment at Walden Pond. Kesey's experiment in La Honda is an affront to both the tourist mentality of the Wild West and the growing suburban culture of 20th-century America.
Wolfe paints life in La Honda as idyllic and rural, but the tranquility of nature is disrupted by the mind-bending drug experimentation that Kesey is performing in the woods with his group of friends. The '60s counter-cultural movement was a rebellion against the post-war culture of conformity that dominated America in the 1940s and '50s. Kesey advocates not only rebelling against this culture, but also altering the state of mind of the one that perceives the culture.
The buying of the bus marks an important moment for the Pranksters, as illustrated by the confrontation between the Pranksters and a California State Highway Patrol officer. When the officer pulls the bus over to inspect it, he is confronted with the abnormality of the Pranksters, who are all tripping on LSD. Their mind-altered state is virtually unrecognizable to this symbol of authority and law. Just as the citizens of La Honda don't quite know what to make of the Pranksters, the officer isn't sure what he is dealing with, eventually writing the group off as circus entertainers and letting them go on their way. For the Pranksters, this is a victory over the dominion of established society and a validation of their sense of invincibility. In a way this is a victory for them, because during this time American culture didn't quite know what to make of groups like Kesey's, preferring to ignore them. Until now, counter-cultural figures like the Beats had stayed mostly underground and out of sight. But Kesey's bus symbolizes the counter-culture's emergence into broader society, forcing those known as "citizens" to confront difference and resistance in society. A humorous and emblematic scene is when the Pranksters mockingly support Barry Goldwater, a notoriously conservative candidate for the Presidency. Unlike the Beats, Kesey's forbearers, the Pranksters openly mock and sneer at the conservative conformist society that treats them as "others."
Another important theme of the book emerges here: the propensity of the Pranksters to meticulously film and document their experiences. There is slight dissension within the Pranksters when Kesey divides them into those who film and those who are filmed, but even those who film seem to get an ecstatic experience from watching Kesey, Babbs, and Paula trip on LSD. This object/subject distinction plays a part in Kesey's journey and alludes to the larger object/subject distinction of the Pranksters as objects being watched by the culture at large. Even Wolfe as a writer plays a role in this distinction, attempting to break through this divide with prose that tries to get inside the heads of the Pranksters. Nevertheless, Wolfe is still very aware of the distance between him, the objective writer, and the Pranksters, as symbolized by the Beauty Witch, who actually loses her mind by the time the group reaches Texas.
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