Some time in 1976, I went into this very hip bookstore in downtown Binghamton, New York where I lived and came across two books whose covers screamed for my attention with their flaming psychedelic designs. I picked one of them up and read the blurb on the back cover. It spoke of psychedelic supermen, conspiracies and a yellow submarine. Reading bits of random pages I knew right then and there that I'd stumbled upon my Rosetta Stone — an alternative world similar to my own that not only acknowledged the sorts of thoughts and fantasies and cultural and political references that I shared with my "out there" friends, but that did so with language that seemed like it had been plugged into the same sort of excessively electrified everything-at-once brain-sockets that our brains were sometimes plugged into. I fished the rumpled scraps of welfare-provided legal tender out of my pocket and bought both immediately.
Illuminatus! was unusual in its time because, in some ways, there seemed to be a sort of unspoken embargo against any novelist who wanted to be considered intellectually credible writing something this directly tied in to hardcore psychedelic freak culture.
If you were a countercultural person, you probably had read Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest; you read some Vonnegut; you read Heller's Catch 22; maybe some Marge Piercy. If you were into SF, you read some of Philip K. Dick's funny, gloomy, strange loopy multiple reality stories. In 1974, everybody read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein and Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley. You might have been catching up on Burroughs' cut up trilogy, which sat in my bathroom and seemed conducive to picking up at random, particularly while stoned and crapping. Some of the characters in some of these books were hipsters or alternative in their ways, but you weren't going to get direct references to SDS and Yippies and tantric sex and groovy hashish meditations on the nature of reality in the language of the "kids" of the time. Besides being a dense, brilliant, philosophic, multileveled yarn, Wilson and Shea tapped on my brain and said "Hello, fellow tripper."
After finishing Part One, I headed back to the store and requested Part Two. The owner ordered it, but I wasn't going to sit around waiting and lose the buzz. I dived right into Part Three. One morning, with a good 100 pages or so left to read, I snorted a nice sharp line of speed (I was no speed freak, but on the occasions when I did take some, I loved to read and read and read… and read some more. I read most of Gravity's Rainbow that way) and I spent the day sitting in a local park devouring the rest of the book in its entirety.
It was just getting dark when I finished and started my brief walk home. But as I passed by the first house on the corner upon exiting the park this actual speed freak — bearded, hair spilling in all directions, rough looking and wild eyed rushed out of his door shaking bodily and glared at me."You've been watching us but we've been watching you. Who are you with?" Now, I was in the Illuminatus! Trilogy. "Kenny Goffman. I know who you are. Who are you with?" I noticed other characters peering out of the house from behind the blinds — speed freaks having a major paranoid episode, all because I'd sat out in the park right near their house all fucking day no doubt pretending to read a book. A quick sputtering of words including "rip off" and "bust" expressed the strung out man's concern that I was advance man either for some druggies bent on robbery or some narcs that were coming to get them that very day.