The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

This is the book that Jess is reading in the park when Rory finds him. It’s a 1968 non-fiction book by Tom Wolfe, a popular example of the New Journalism literary style. It’s a firsthand account of the novelist Ken Kesey and his followers, called The Merry Pranksters, who travelled around the US in a colourfully painted school bus called Further, whose name was painted as the destination sign. The bus was driven by Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road.

Kesey and his Pranksters became famous for their use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD (“acid”), often added to the drink Kool-Aid at Acid Test parties. Kesey becomes idolised as a hero of the countercultural movement, and almost a priest of a transcendent new religion or cult. He forms friendships with the Hell’s Angels, and crosses paths with other countercultural icons, such as The Grateful Dead and Allen Ginsberg, but is unsuccessful in his attempts to meet psychologist Timothy Leary, who worked with psychedelic drugs. The Pranksters meet Jack Kerouac, who finds them overwhelming and resents them, a symbol of the hippies overtaking the Beat generation as the new counterculture. Eventually, the law catches up with them.

The book received modest critical acclaim, and is regarded as a faithful and sober account of Kesey’s activities, although it has also received plenty of criticism for Wolfe’s idolisation of Kesey, and his glorification of rampant drug abuse. Kesey himself noted that Wolfe was only with him for three weeks, and used no recording devices at all, but provided a reasonably factual account.

This book makes perfect sense for Jess to read – an updated On the Road, with a similar vibe to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It shows his interest in journalism as a literary art form.

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