Enthralling Books: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark


The book that most enthralled me -- or at least first enthralled me on the level you're talking about -- was Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I was in college, on my way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to direct my friend Walter Kirn's play "Soft White Kids in Leather," loosely based on Warhol's Factory. Although I had read up on a lot of the New York scene of that era, it wasn't until I found Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (in the mass-market paperback edition in one of those used book bins) that I realized I had finally found someone who could not only express the experience of the group trip, but could also articulate the dynamics and ideology of the psychedelic commune. (Yes, Kesey and the Dead were the West Coast, tie-dyed counterpart to the black turtleneck culture of Warhol and Leary. But the sense of commitment to higher ideals and convenient forgetting of more day-to-day ethics were common to both scenes.)

Anyway, once I started this one I couldn't stop. This was back when taking a trip to Europe was still a really really big thing, so I had planned to travel from Italy to England to Scotland over a slow week of touring before starting rehearsals in Edinburgh. But I spent most of my time in hotel rooms and cafes just reading this book. Twice.

I don't think anything Wolfe has written really comes close, except maybe some of the essays. The book was my model for Cyberia - a similar foray into a psychedelic culture, where some fictionalizing was required to convey deeper non-fiction truths. I hope there's another psychedelic renaissance of this magnitude in my lifetime, just so I have the chance to write or even just read about it one more time.


  1. I’ve read this so many times it’s sick.  I’d like to know in more detail, and the results of, the games that the Pranksters played–things along the lines of the game they played called Control.

  2. Why has the “Enthralling Books” series taken its logo from the popular manga series “Many-tentacled-violators-of-Japanese-schoolgirls?”

  3. The comparison between the Haight-Ashbury scene and Warhol’s factory is ludicrous. Warhol was all about making money, even to the point of letting the hangers-on do the work for him.

  4. Actually, Douglas is omnibus. Another psychedelic renaissance might require another, new drug… too bad chemistry doesn’t have it’s own Moore’s law.

  5. I am a massive fantasy fan, the last book that truly captured me was Enchantress by James Maxwell. One of those books where I just had to take the day off work to stay in bed and finish the book.

    Found the little gem on Amazon for a couple of bucks, think a mix of Jack Vance and Patrick Rothfuss. 

    Highly recommended to anyone who loves fantasy but whats something a little different than then norm. Truly epic.

  6. I first read this book when I was 14 and was totally enthralled.    It gave me a hunger to try LSD, which I was able to do shortly thereafter.  From that first time I took LSD every weekend for over three years, and boy was it a blast!  

    Love this book.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Rushkoff about this book. During my Summer off after first year of college (Late 70s, BFE Iowa), it just blew me away.  I would sit outside in the parking lot, on my 32-minute lunch break from the factory job and totally relive my trip experiences from the previous few months.  I’ve been reluctant to re-read the book ever since.  Just don’t know if I’d get the same trippy feeling.  Maybe I will some day.  But my hat is off to Tom Wolfe for getting that feeling exactly right. 

  8. I first read Electric Kool-Aid as serialized in the Sunday magazine of the old Herald Trib, edited by Clay Felker, which later morphed into New York magazine.  Blew my head off.  

    Of course, what people tend to forget is how the book ends, with Kesey intoning, “We blew it” into a microphone on stage at a gig with the Pranksters.  Not coincidentally, this is also the phrase that Captain America says to Billy around the campfire the night before they’re shot-gunned off the road in “Easy Rider.” 

    In _Acid Christ_, Kesey is quoted as saying, “The truth is we’re losers.  You make enough fuss and you attract the real forces down on you.  And then you have to hide.  We’re always gonna be in the minority, and we’re always gonna lose.  We’ve always lost, all through history.  We’re the divine losers.  And I keep inviting all these young, smart people:  ‘Come with us.  Lose with us.  Lose beautifully.  We’re not meant to win.'” 

    In any case, I’m still waiting for another issue of Kesey’s Spit in the Ocean because I goddamn paid for that subscription!

  9. I couldn’t finish this book. I think I got about 2/3 through; it’s still on the shelf at my parents’ house and my place is probably still marked. I was in high school and really into the Dead at the time, and there certainly were some really interesting things in the book that stuck with me (and which I still think of when I read/hear about LSD etc. or listen to the Dead). 

    But I don’t know, it just wasn’t that compelling and some of it even annoyed me. I didn’t like the frequent descriptions of someone’s “rapping” complete nonsense (at least to me). I just couldn’t really dig a lot of it, man.

    I have to say, too, that more than anything else this book scared me off of psychedelics. I’ve since become more intrigued and open to the idea because of other things I’ve seen and read – including Boing Boing I might point out – but haven’t tried anything.

  10. Hunter S. Thompsons book ‘Hell’s Angels’ is a great companion to this book. It deals with a completely different set of people, a motorcycle gang, but at one point their paths cross with the people from The Kool Aid Acid Test and it’s really fascinating to read the passages where the characters and events of these two books overlap in a wild acid frenzy, from two quite different perspectives. (And it’s just a great read in itself too. I highly recommend it. It’s written by a younger, slightly more restrained and focused HST)

    If I recall correctly Hunter S. Thompson lent Tom Wolfe a bunch of notes from that particular event.

    1. The “wave” bit in Fear and Loathing captured the essence nicely, too.

      There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

      And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

      So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

  11. Does anybody remember the name of the pop-art artist who did the cover artwork?

    Edit: okay, got it. It’s Milton Glaser who also created the epic “I [heart] N Y”. Love his work

  12. I read it (and loved it) during my Misspent Youth, back when a cry of “Show me your papers!”  would be answered by sticking your tongue out.

    A couple years ago I flew home to be with my mom as she died. Right before I left for the airport I realized I needed something to read on the plane. I grabbed this book to take with me, and that made for a very interesting reading. Now when I see the name Hell’s Angels I think of reading about La Honda on the balcony of a small hotel room in Waikiki early in the morning. And when I hear the song Cassady I flash back to sitting outside the hospital one afternoon, talking on the phone with a friend who had worked for The Dead and knew some of the people in the book later in their lives.

  13. Great post, and great book.

    Two really awesome thought-provoking books (non-fiction) which I’d recommend:

    Battling Wall Street:  The Kennedy presidency, by Donald Gibson


    Thy Will Be Done, by Gerard Colby with Charlotte Dennett

    Really thought changers!

  14. Ken Kesey wrote the same story as Wolfe.  I found it in a paperback coffee table volume called Garage Sale.  I have always thought the difference between the two described clearly the genius and humor of Kesey at the expense of Wolfe’s journalistic journeyman approach.  An HST vs Maureen Dowd sort of thing.

    1. Walt Kelly called Tom Wolfe “the best reporter in America” for a reason. He made HST possible. One thing that the Pranksters make pretty clear (this to Mr. Rushkoff) is that they did not feel a great kinship to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the Velvet Underground, feeling that New York was “two years behind.”

  15. Stewart Brand (who was on the bus but didn’t fit Wolfe’s imposed plot) once introduced Ken Kesey as “the basis for a character in Tom Wolfe’s novel, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

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