Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the epitome of new journalism. Although he is an outsider, Wolfe is able to effectively translate the shenanigans and feelings of the Merry Pranksters without sounding condescending or completely “on the bus.” A representation of the east coast, Wolfe is a quiet narrator, I find it hard to relate this art form to that of Joan Didion or Hunter S. Thompson, whose personal narrative is almost as apparent as the story itself. Wolfe expertly writes without bias or influence, merely translating for readers afraid of, or confused with, the counterculture movement taking place on the west coast. His ability to capture the energy and freedom experienced by the Pranksters, while subtly reminding the reader of “bad trips” and the poor living conditions aboard the bus. The paranoia experienced by the characters, their reservations and resentments are all expertly documented in the concrete, yet timeless art form of the book.
The chaos of this time period is evident in Wolfe’s work and his syntax and diction perfectly embody the disorder of the movement. While it is true that the book is a concrete and limiting way to record information, Wolfe manages to bring life to an otherwise static art form. Wolfe’s writing style conveys the “feelings of the people he has been describing rather than his own,” he manages to enchant the reader without inserting his personal opinions or beliefs (Wakefield, 43). Critics, like MacDonald, try to attack Wolfe’s writing style by accusing him of, “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction,” ignoring the fact that Wolfe is reporting on events beyond imagination and structure (Wakefield, 43). The events of this time period needed to be recorded, and they needed to be written down in an understandable way.
I appreciate the additional readings for this book as it was refreshing to discover I wasn’t the only one gasping for breath at the end of each chapter. “Kesey is seeing very little-his mind alive largely to the details of his latest fantasy-but Wolfe is able to focus on the reality of Kesey’s world and to convey the quality of Kesey’s paranoid experience,” further stating that Wolfe captures the way his thoughts go a mile-a-minute, “each second of [thought] lasts no more than a minute and is agonizingly detailed and examined in the best Prankster day-glo color” (Bredahl, 79). The life of the Pranksters is outrageous and hard to digest, something Wolfe’s writing style captures perfectly. His lengthy sentences and fast dialogue keep the reader moving at the same speed as the Pranksters, and by the end of each chapter I felt the need to gather my thoughts.
Wolfe’s control over the narrative is necessary, as the Pranksters are unable to form complete and digestible thoughts. Throughout the book, “Kesey’s energies are also alive but trapped within himself-not the artificial rules of syntax,” as Wolfe’s writing style complements rather than competes with the chaos of the time (Brdahl, 79). The sickening and horrible flow that takes place in the second part of the book is perfectly captured by Wolfe, and the reader feels satisfied with the end of the era, as the book opened with Kesey’s time in jail. Wolfe’s ability to connect such a disorganized story is remarkable, and worthy of praise. As the Pranksters “made the trip now, closed the circle,” so Wolfe closes the circle, finishing where he started with Kesey’s time in jail.
Bredahl’s article perfectly embodies my feelings of Wolfe, as he says, “Kesey and Wolfe share many of the same values, but Wolfe succeeds where Kesey and the Pranksters blow it because Wolfe is able to look at the physical laws as something to be used to one’s advantage-evaluated-rather than as frustrations to be overcome” (Bredahl, 84). Wolfe is an understandable artist, rather than Kesey who is merely upset and reacting out of pure emotion rather than rationale, as Wolfe does. Wolfe’s ability to embody this movement but remain sane and rational is a remarkable feat in itself. His ability to write it all down and capture the chaos so perfectly makes him nothing short of a new journalistic god.