So last night I finished The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the story of famous novelist Ken Kesey. It isn't by Ken Kesey, it's by another famous novelist, Tom Wolfe. It isn't a novel. And it isn't about novels, or writing. It's about the psychedelic era of the late '60s, particularly around San Francisco.
At the time this was written--in 1967, the "Summer of Love," and the year I was born--Tom Wolfe was a journalist working for New York Magazine, and Kesey had just been busted for marijuana use, after spending a bit of time as a fugitive in Mexico. Kesey didn't do marijuana, normally, he did LSD--which, at that time, wasn't illegal. Kesey was given LSD as part of experiments at Stanford. (All the seminal figures in the psychedelic movement were in fact initiated into it by government-sponsored experiments.) He gathered a following around him known as the Merry Pranksters, which ranged from Neal Cassady, the real-life hero of Jack Kerouac's On The Road, to Stewart Brand, who went on to start the Whole Earth Catalog and, later, The "Whole Earth 'Lectric Link" or The WELL, which should be known to anyone who's been around the internet for a sufficient period of time--one of the first "online communities" really deserving of the name.
Wolfe might have been the ideal person to set down the story of the Pranksters: a literate, poetic skeptic, a bohemian of the New York City variety coming out to San Francisco, the man in the natty suit plunging himself into the midst of the tie dye and love beads. He was fascinated by Kesey's crowd and the scene that had developed around them, adopted their language for the book, and remained clear-headed enough to see both what what was going wrong and what they were striving for. His narration of the odd trip of the Prankster's bus, "Further" (at times deliberately misspelled "Furthur"), across the country and back, puts across all that fascination. Phrases that have passed into the popular lexicon, like acid rock and you're on the bus or off the bus and even describing drug trips as a trip, started here. Now you not only know it was a real bus you were on or off of, you know which bus they're talking about.
A lot of people in my generation, and perhaps the one before and the one after, have a very narrow view of "The '60s." It mostly comes from Woodstock by way of TV recreations and advertising spoofs ("Is that Peace Rock, dude? Turn it up!"), with serious commentary provided chiefly by people who didn't approve of all those crazy hippies. It's a view of the '60s from Woodstock on--to wit, a view of the decade after it was mostly over.
The most fascinating thing to me about Electric Kool-Aid is that it makes clear that by the time Haight-Ashbury was The Hip Place and LSD was running like water in the streets, the story was ending. It was ending. The point where the modern view of the '60s begins is the point where the acid culture stopped being interesting--not coincidentally, the point where LSD and other hallucinogenics became an end in themselves, not a means to an end. Kesey and the Pranksters were about opening doors of perception, a phrase that makes people giggle now because they don't realize that it goes back ages before Jefferson Airplane.
Gradually the Prankster attitude began to involve the main things religious mystics have always felt, things common to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and for that matter Theosophists and flying-saucer cultists. Namely, the experiencing of an Other World, a higher level of reality. And a perception of the cosmic unity of this higher level. And a feeling of timelessness, the feeling that what we know as time is only the result of a naïve faith in causality--the notion that A in the past caused B in the present, which will cause C in the future, when actually A, B and C are all part of a pattern that can be truly understood only by opening the doors of perception and experiencing it in this moment, this supreme moment, this kairos.
For the Pranksters, this involved LSD. The language isn't much different than shamans used to describe dreamwalking. As Wolfe notes, it isn't that much different than what Herman Hesse wrote in 1932 in Journey to the East. In the book's final pages, Kesey urges people to go "beyond" acid, and it's clear he wasn't talking about just finding better drugs, he was talking about going further on that trip, to new states of consciousness, to things that made the "hippies" who'd sprung up in 1966-67 uncomfortable. Ultimately he wasn't interested in the drugs as much as in exploring what they revealed. A lot of people weren't interested in that; they'd gone far enough, thank you, Ken, and didn't want any of this beyond nonsense.
Were the Pranksters on to something in their original vision? I'd say yes--tentatively. Do drugs really help? Probably the answer is, again, yes, just with a bigger caveat. As different as the chemical effects may be, the artistic and spiritual effects aren't too different no matter which drug you take. Fuel the right person with mojitos and you get The Old Man and the Sea, but in most cases, you just get drunks staggering around Havana.
Most of the book took place in areas south of San Francisco, closer to my haunts here: around Stanford, Palo Alto, La Honda, down toward Santa Cruz. This gave it a kind of unexpected local resonance. Forget Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley. That's where things ended. The Peninsula is where they began.
I came across a review of a Hunter S. Thompson book on Amazon, in which the reviewer writes, "I was born in the late seventies in a conservative household in Texas. I never knew... the hopes of the counter-culture movement--only the failures." I think this is a corrosive problem with the view three and a half decades later, reduced to a caricature of potheads and Day-Glo Flower Power posters, clucked at by fatuous reactionaries as an example of Where America Went Wrong; I may have more to write about that another time.
A lot of what Wolfe writes about, what Kesey and the Pranksters searched for, invokes the Jungian concept of "synchronicity." Here's an example: I finished the book yesterday, and yesterday evening did a Google search on a few of the names. The Pranksters, at least some of them, are still around. They still own the bus. And the bus is coming to Mountain View tonight.
I can't say that any doors of perception are opening for me, and I have no expectation of taking anything stronger than tequila (and not much of that). What's bouncing around in my head, though, is one of my long-shelved story ideas, now seen--prismatically and right now only in tiny tiny unclear fragments--as a story that may be about the subculture I wanted to set it in, the hows and whys and whos not being the background for the plot I'd sketched out long ago. I'm coming up with some interesting ideas in how to approach it, fictional non-fiction, the gonzo journalism of the future. The Electric Furry Acid Test.
Or I may just end up drunk, staggering around Havana.