It was easy to pull Electric Kool-Aid off the shelf after reading the Grateful Dead biography. Tom Wolfe brilliantly describes Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster scene, of which the Grateful Dead were a major contributor, in this somewhat novelized, novel-length report.
If I didn’t know more about the author, a dandy whose uniform was a white three-piece suit, I would assume he had been taking LSD right along with Mountain Girl, Doris Delay, Hassler and the Hermit. Like Hunter S. Thompson, who lent Wolfe information about the Hell’s Angels for this book, Wolfe has the uncanny knack of grasping complex relationships and states of mind without having to wholly experience them himself. It’s the empathic, keenly observant power of all great writers.
Wolfe’s collection of essays The Pump House Gang, came out the very same day, and the title essay concerned Southern California surfers. His 1979 book about astronauts, The Right Stuff, was every bit as detailed and compelling about the complications of flying a rocket ship as Electric Kool-Aid was about the mind expansion and paranoia of hallucinogenic drug use.
The cover of the paper back edition I own has an innocent sugar cube smack dab in the center, nestled in a wrapper of swirling Day Glo colors. From the first page until about three quarters through, the book is truly electric, full of fascinating conversation, connections, creativity, costumes, consensual sex, collaboration–all the best “c” words. There’s constant movement, it’s an inclusive society, they have Kesey’s best seller money, and they have a far-out bus. Furthur.
The book also bridges the gap between Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the late 1960s Summer of Love and Woodstock with the character of Neal Cassady. Cassady is an elder, honorary Prankster, in constant motion– talking, tossing a sledgehammer or driving–doing nothing but “burn, burn, burn,” as Kerouac says about the people he loved to conspire with. Cassady brings the authority of the Beats to the Pranksters.
Kesey-related side bar: Kirk Douglas bought the movie rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest almost immediately after its publication and wanted to play main character McMurphy. By the time the movie got made, by Kirk’s son Michael, the elder Douglas had aged out of the part and Jack Nicholson was hired (Kesey would have preferred Gene Hackman). Michael Douglas won an Academy Award for Best Picture (the film also won Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress) and named his production company “Furthur.”
So c-words, inclusivity, movement, good music and color color color keep the first three quarters of the book exciting, inspiring, and it’s oh-so-fun to read Wolfe’s linguistic gymnastics. But one or three marijuana possession charges send Kesey running to Mexico, and the book turns slow and sludgy as Kesey and key Pranksters hide out in the charmless cinder block-and-plaster that was the Mexican west coast affordable housing in the 1960s.
Things are hot, buggy, boring and brown for the Pranksters in Mexico. Paranoia is rampant. Back in California, there’s a sad exclusivity, hierarchies are starting to form and suddenly the scene is darker and starting to unravel. Cassady dies on the railroad tracks south of San Miguel de Allende. A bedraggled Kesey and company return to California, but the Pranksters and the book never get back the exuberance, innocence and phosphorescence of the earlier pages.
Wolfe drags out the bummer phase a little too long for my taste, but he packs on enough fuel in the beginning to sustain us through the inevitable descent of the rocket man that was wrestler, novelist, friend, lover, husband, father, Prankster Ken Kesey.