I’m currently reading an American classic.
Well, that’s according to the quote from Newsweek prominently displayed on the cover. (“An American classic – Newsweek.” )
If I asked you to name an American Classic, however, my guess is that this book is probably not the first one you’d think of, dear Reader, and probably not the second or third, either. Its not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick or To Kill A Mockingbird.
For those who only like fiction, this book may not be of interest, but if you love reading first person accounts of the era in America when the Beat generation of the 1950s morphed into the hippy generation of the 60s, and/or if you are interested in the particular style of non-fiction writing that developed in the 60s and 70s, known then as New Journalism, then this book would be as good a place as any to start your studies. It’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe.
In any discussion of the “new”, subjective, or first-person-perspective style of journalism pioneered by writers in the 60s and 70s, three American writers are usually mentioned. These are Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote. I’ve read a few of Didion’s books but, to my shame, thus far I have not read any Truman Capote or Tom Wolfe, and keep on meaning to do so. A few weeks ago I heard someone on the radio talking about In Cold Blood, by Capote, a book that I know quite well is sitting somewhere on my bookshelves, and I thought, as I’ve done before, I really should read that.
Coincidentally, I was between books at the time, so I attempted to look for it, but while clambering around amongst the 2000 – 4000 books in our house (exact numbers are a hotly contested topic), I accidentally stumbled across The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Given the difficulty of locating a specific book amongst the many books in our abode, there is usually a partially-planned, yet partially-random element to any book selection I make, so when I found The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, I hesitated for only about 0.6 of a second to wonder if I should just read it instead. Since my main purpose was to read one of the renowned New Journalism authors that I had not yet read, that’s how long it took to decide that it would serve the purpose beautifully. I could always look for In Cold Blood again next time, and probably end up reading Breakfast At Tiffany’s instead.
Now, this post is not a review of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I’m only up to page 92 of 366, so to attempt a review at this point would be ridiculously premature.For those who are totally unfamiliar with the book, as I was until a week ago – suffice to say it is a non-fiction account of the real-life shenanigans of author Ken Kesey and a group of friends/followers from San Fransisco, who live communally, experiment with psychedelic drugs, and drive across the U.S. together in an old school bus.
I began this post with the intention of taking off on a tangent from an idea casually suggested by one of the “characters” in the book. Now, however, through writing those introductory paragraphs above, I have become a victim of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test myself. That is, it has distracted me completely. My other ideas have slipped away, and all I can focus on is the name of the book.
So let’s just all pause here, dear Readers, to unanimously agree on the spot that this book title goes straight into the Top Ten Book Titles ever.* Or maybe it should be in the Top Ten Book Titles That Capture The Place And Time In Which The Book Is Set. (Although whoever thought up that particular competition title clearly has no ability to judge a good title – that is terrible!)
The title of the book, on the other hand, is unquestionably groovy. It captures the time – the beginning of the 1960s, and the place – America, or even more specifically, San Fransicso in the 1960s. All through those few key words, Electric, Kool-Aid and Acid, words that were either new, or had obtained new meanings, or conveyed a new significance, in the early 60s.
Electricity was certainly not new in the 1960s, but it was still a relatively new thing that most homes in America (as in Australia, where I am writing from) had access to electricity. Even newer were the electric appliances flooding the market, designed to make household chores quicker and easier, and give people access to communication and entertainment right in their own living rooms. Telephones, televisions and radios became more affordable – now every home could aspire to own one! Women’s magazines were full of breathlessly excited advertisements for these electrical products and gadgets, and the humble appliances themselves seemed to signify a new, modern lifestyle. It’s no coincidence that”electric” came to also be used as an adjective meaning “thrilling.”
Apparently Kool-Aid was not new in the 1960s either (I had to google to find out what exactly Kool-Aid is, since it has not broken into the market in Australia) but I somehow suspect that once again, the massive increase in exposure to advertising on TV, radio and magazines in the 1960s meant that Kool-Aid probably also seemed to symbolise newness and modernity. And speaking as someone who doesn’t live in America, it certainly seems to signify America. I’ve only just discovered via the interwebs that Kool-Aid is a powder that is added to water to make a flavoured drink. It sounds like a dehydrated version of a drink in Australia that we call cordial – a concentrated flavoured liquid that is added to water to get, I’m guessing, a very similar result: flavoured water.
The fact that we don’t have Kool-Aid here in the land of Oz highlights how the title of the book captures the time and location it is set in – if it had been written in Australia, or Britain, The Electric Cordial Acid Test just would not have quite the same ring to it, would it?
As for acid, any year 8 student could tell you that acid, a generic term for a chemical compound, was not a new word or concept in the early 60s. Possibly that same year 8 student could then also fill you in on the development of the psychedelic drug LSD, which was very new in the 1960s, and was referred to by users as acid. It was so new, in fact, that Wolfe describes Kesey, the main subject in the book, being given LSD under observation in hospital, for purposes of scientific research to find out what the side effects might be.
So I’m 92 pages in and so far I’ve learned that acid and Kool-aid mix together very nicely, particularly when kept in the refrigerator of a large converted school bus as it drives across the USA. And that the Acid Test in the title refers to the practice of using acid together as a group to try and achieve a communal trip.
Stay tuned for further updates as they come to hand.
*Another great book title is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – or is this just a sign that my inner hippy gets really excited at titles with the word electric in them? I was never a big fan of the Electric Light Orchestra so I like to think it’s not that.