Acid House

Andrew Hultkrans on the 40th anniversary of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

New York

Rick Moody and Tom Wolfe. (All photos: David Velasco)

DURING THE Q&A at the end of Tom Wolfe’s fortieth-anniversary discussion of his gonzoid Merry Pranksters travelogue The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe was asked about his opinion of Gus Van Sant’s forthcoming film adaptation. Wolfe replied, “Films that try to capture trips—hallucinations—always fail miserably.” As counterexamples raced through my mind—David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, hell, the Monkees’ Head—I found myself thinking, “Polite, laudatory conversations for the NPR set at Symphony Space aren’t exactly a freezer bag of ’shrooms, either.”

I had high-ish hopes for last Wednesday evening, further piqued when my editor told me that the publicist had asked us to arrive forty minutes before showtime so he could “set us up.” Would we be dosed? Would our faces be painted in Day-Glo colors? Would there be, as at the end of Blake Edwards’s The Party, elephants, bubbles, and Claudine Longet? At the very least, would there be a chaotic, immersive multimedia environment, like the ones the Pranksters created for their proto-rave acid tests using microphones, Echoplexes, overhead projectors, oil-emulsion slides, etc.?

Sadly, no. Symphony Space’s red and blue deco-and-girders interior was mildly gaudy but hadn’t been tricked out in any special way for the occasion. Rick Moody, Wolfe’s interlocutor for the evening, may as well have been interviewing E. L. Doctorow. This seemed emblematic of the blandly liberal, culturally cautious Upper West Side. The only “setup” I received was a seat at the back of the house. I took it and settled in for the duration.

After introductions by the venue’s creative director, Wolfe and Moody emerged onstage—Wolfe in one of his several hundred white suits, Moody in a black scully. Just before Tony Award–winning actor René Auberjonois was to read an excerpt, Wolfe said, “Nothing I’ve written will sound as good as this.” Auberjonois did sound good as he performed a passage about the Pranksters’ test drive of their garishly painted, media-augmented school bus, dubbed “Furthur,” though he lacked the unhinged, maniacal glee the book’s subject and voice require.

Rick Moody, Tom Wolfe, and René Auberjonois.

Moody told Wolfe that Acid Test was a “paradigm shift” for him as a young reader, exhibiting “excellence” in both its “exuberant language and punctuation” and its reported narrative. In a light southern accent peppered with dry-mouth clicks, Wolfe described the genesis of the project—his exposure to the letters that king Prankster and novelist Ken Kesey had written to old friend Larry McMurtry while the former was on the lam in Mexico. The evening peaked early (for me) with this revelation: Wolfe constructed his uncannily convincing, fly-on-the-blotter-sheet account of the Pranksters’ 1964 cross-country bus trip retroactively, after extensive interviews and a thorough examination of the group’s film and audio archives. Later in the discussion, Wolfe noted that Hunter S. Thompson once said, “I actually live this, Tom Wolfe writes about it.” Wolfe conceded this as true, and it is a testament to his scarily empathetic imagination as a young reporter.

Calling his book a “picture of a primary religion at its starting point,” Wolfe compared Kesey on meeting him in a California jail to Jesus and Zoroaster, and the Pranksters, who were in attendance at this first meeting, to the Apostles. Kesey spoke to them in parables, Wolfe said, and the acid-fueled Pranksters spread the gospel of psychic freedom across the country, sparking the hippie counterculture. He hastened to add, however, that Kesey was not an Indian-style guru, teaching silent meditation and trance-induced enlightenment: “He was loud. His text wasn’t the Bhagavad Gita; it was Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange.” Wolfe hadn’t read One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he began his reporting but was tremendously impressed when he did. He recalled Kesey telling him, “Writers are recorders of earthquakes that happen far away. On acid, you’re the lightning rod—it’s all flowing through you.”

Asked by Moody why the Pranksters allowed a suit-wearing straight who eschewed LSD to hang out with them, Wolfe replied, “I’m not overbearing,” adding that Kesey hated “weekend hipsters” so much that he would weed them out by suggesting naked motorcycle rides down California’s twisting, two-lane Route 1. He recalled how Kesey once tried to persuade him to partake in the psychedelic sacrament by saying, “Why don’t you put down that pen and paper and just be here?” Wolfe said he considered it for about seventeen seconds but declined. Due to the chasm of taste and predilection separating Wolfe from the Pranksters, reporting the book was “not fun—I was so far ‘off the bus’ it wasn’t funny.”

It should be noted that while Wolfe has written some indisputably brilliant books, he is given, these days, to saying some staggeringly stupid things. Noting how the psychedelic era turned out to be “novel-proof,” he went on a silly soliloquy about how no novelist could imagine Paris Hilton’s life story. Didn’t Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel virtually invent Paris Hilton? Wolfe’s animus for blogs and “citizen journalism” is well known and arguable, but do I really have to swallow his fatuous pronouncement that the subprime mortgage disaster was caused by the unpleasantness of on-screen reading? That predatory lenders made bad loans because they couldn’t bear to read the applications on a computer? Please. This is the wrong stuff. Nevertheless, the questioners were rapturous, one going so far as to ask Wolfe who made his suits. The man who shares his bespoke style with John Travolta and Ricardo Montalbán dutifully gave his tailor’s name and address, as well as that of his shirtmaker. I left during the applause, in search of Kool-Aid.