The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Summary and Analysis of "The Unspoken Thing" & "The Bust"

Wolfe begins by explaining why he found the Pranksters so interesting. He compares their activities to the scholarly interpretations that characterize the beginning of religious movements. He says that after spending time with the Pranksters, he felt there was something "religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn't put one's finger on it." Wolfe realizes it is the "experience" that is shared between all the Pranksters that makes it feel this way. None of the great religions began with a philosophical framework, but instead began with "an overwhelming new experience." Wolfe relies on the work of Joachim Wach and Max Weber to help find a definition for the kind of community that the Pranksters are creating. He begins by outlining some of these theories, which sound strikingly similar to those endorsed by Kesey and his Pranksters: the founder has visions and dreams; he interprets manifestations of the divine; there is something "elemental" about him; "he appears as a renewer of lost contracts with the hidden powers of life"; and "he does not usually come from the aristocracy, the learned or refined." These groups begin to "develop their own symbols, terminology, lifestyles, and, gradually, simple cultic practices, rites, often involving music and art, all of which grow out of their new experience and seemed weird or incomprehensible to those who have never had it." All of these signs seem to point to the beginnings of a new religion within the Prankster ranks.

When the narration of the story resumes, a new character joins the Pranksters: Mountain Girl. She was previously a middle-class, educated, bourgeois student from New York, but she left that life for a bohemian existence in California. She talks with a hard, "low-rent" accent and is "one big loud charge of vitality." She immediately fits in with the rest of the Pranksters. Another member also joins: a high-school kid named "The Hermit." He is an outcast who ran away from home and had taken to living in the woods when he stumbled upon Kesey and the Pranksters. Bradley Hodgeman, a former college tennis star, also joins the group. Hodgeman becomes Cassady's disciple, and can't help but act "weird."

According to Wolfe, the Pranksters spent most of the fall, winter, and spring of 1964-65 editing their film, the 45 hours of footage they recorded while on their cross-country trek. Kesey hopes to distribute the film nationally, and is largely bankrolling its production, as well as the living expenses of the entire Prankster group, through his royalties off One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The Pranksters keep trying new experiments with LSD, such as painting all of the trees in the forest in Day-Glo colors and dubbing spaced-out noises over shows on television, always trying to find that "new experience." Kesey begins urging the other Pranksters to find their own "movie": a metaphor for what their life really is. Mountain Girl's movie is called "Big Girl"; the Hermit's is "Everybody's Bad Trip." Page's movie is "Zea-lot," and Kesey's movie is simply called "Randle McMurphy." Each of these titles and the accompanying story lines is supposed to say something deep and meaningful about the person who has the movie. Eventually it should be revealed as a message that that person should extend to all people.

The townspeople in La Honda are beginning to get fed up with Kesey and the Pranksters, and the Pranksters themselves have begun to think that they are immune from the restrictions and rules of the normal world - even the police. The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office and federal narcotics officials, led by an officer named William Wong, began surveillance on the Pranksters. The Pranksters act like it's all a big game of cops and robbers, and so they toy with the police and play along.

When the cops finally do a raid on the house, the Pranksters, having been tipped off, have cleared out all of the drugs. The cops arrest Kesey after he hits one of them in the face, as well as the other Pranksters, but only the charges against Kesey hold up in court. The bigger event is that the national press begins to notice Kesey and the Pranksters, portraying them as beatniks in "the model of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs." The press is fascinated by Kesey, and so instead of holding the Pranksters in check, the cops' raid actually increases their prominence and status within the growing counter-cultural movement.

Wolfe then recounts the story of Norman Hartweg, a seventeen-year-old journalist and playwright from Los Angeles who joins the Pranksters. Norman, like the others, is fascinated by Kesey and the Pranksters, and slowly tries to integrate himself into the group. But the process is a slow one, and Norman has to adjust to the expectations and initiations of the group. They disparage him for being "lazy" and for not contributing to the group experience. They don't let him edit the film - a symbol of status within the group - and new members begin to join, like Paul Foster and Pancho, who quickly gain greater status because they are more "out of reality" than Norman. Norman keeps trying to discover what it takes to be a part of the group, and finally finds out when he reads a book on Kesey's shelf: Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, a science fiction book about the end of the world and a group of people who experience it. The moral of the book, according to Wolfe, is that finding the "Overmind" is a matter of becoming "zonked out of (your) ever-loving gourd...and heading out toward...Edge City."


In this section, Wolfe expounds further on why he believes the Pranksters are the start of a new religion. Using the theories of scholars such as Weber and Wach, he draws comparisons between the beginnings of the great religions of the world and the Pranksters. He places Kesey in the line of the great messianic figures in world history...and indeed, the comparisons are striking. Kesey has increasingly begun to speak in maxims, parables, and small bits of wisdom, often not making any logical sense but instead leaving it up to his "disciples" to figure things out.

Wolfe believes this movement to be more like a religious experience because it is based on "experience" rather than a philosophical base. Experience, he says, is what all of the great religions have been based on. Scholars have debated for centuries on what the nature of that experience was: perhaps divine revelation, or perhaps psychological manipulation, and Wolfe suggests that the Pranksters' use of LSD to create this experience is no different than when Zoroaster saw his visions under the hallucinogenic influence of steaming pools in the Far East.

Wolfe also takes time here to expound on the type of person drawn to this hippie, counter-cultural lifestyle. He calls them "beautiful people": young, middle-class, often educated individuals, generally gathered in San Francisco, New York, and L.A., who are rebelling against the straight-laced "company man" mentality of the post-World War II generation. These young people are like the beatniks of the late 1950s, but with the major difference that this group of young people is using LSD to alter their experience of reality - a crucial component of this strain of the counter-culture. Wolfe suggests that it is the influence of drugs that is causing the uneasiness "all over America." It is the drugs that cause uneven and altered states of mind, as the reader has seen with characters like Sandy. This worries these middle-class families, for they fear that their sons and daughters might journey into a state of altered reality from which they will never return.

Wolfe also characterizes these groups of young people as large sessions of "group therapy." The goal is to bring everything out for everyone else: emotions, feelings, ideas, and anything else one can think of. Norman, the young writer from L.A., is chastised for reading a book and smoking a cigarette because both activities are individual activities that benefit no one but the person who engages in them. The Pranksters believe that all experiences should be shared with everyone else in order to create a communal experience of altered reality. This is the world that so attracts Norman, but that he simultaneously finds so hard to engage with. People with loner personalities have a much harder time fitting into the group.

Individuality is both encouraged and suppressed within the group. Kesey likens each person's personality to the movies that they create, but even these movies have to be created for a communal purpose. No one is allowed to simply live in isolation; they must all share themselves with everyone else. Through the use of LSD, Kesey and the Pranksters hope this kind of communal sharing of experiences will create true intersubjectivity, in which each person will live within the mind of each other, and the group consciousness will be raised to a new, more enlightened level.