* Prices may differ from that shown
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publish Date: 1968
No of Pages: 368
Genre: Somewhere in between the Beat Generation and Gonzo Journalism though not actually directly touching either.
Amazon Price: £7.19
***About the author***
Wolfe, born in Virginia, earned not only a BA but also a Ph.D in American Studies through Yale in 1957. A lucky break arrived the year before he graduated when Wolfe landed a job as reporter on the Springfiled Union. This job turned out to be the beginning of a 10-year career in newspaper which included stints with The Washington Post and the New York Herald-Tribune.
While working as a busy journalist in 1965, Wolf wrote and had published his first book "The Kandy Coloured Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby". The book quickly became a best seller and paved the way for two more books published on the same day as each other, The Pump House Gang and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test - The later arguably being Wolfe's best known work.
Each of Wolfe's publications were of a controversial nature often exposing the reader to a lifestyle they are unfamiliar with. Wolfe went from strength to strength writing and publishing books which the public wanted to read, thus racking up several bestsellers for himself and awards including the American Book Award for "The Right Stuff".
In 1985 Wolfe wrote his first fictional novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. It was published in serial form by Rolling Stone Magazine and in 1987 as a book. Not only did it go on to sell over two million copies and be named as the number one best-selling paperback, it was also turned into a popular film starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis.
Tom Wolfe has continued to write his controversial, articles, books and essays. In his time as a journalist and author, Wolfe has gained the respect and critical acclaim of a great number of his contemporaries as well as literary critics worldwide.
*Other books by Tom Wolfe*
The Right tuff
Bonfire of the Vanities
A Man in Full
I am Charlotte Simmons
The Purple Decade
The Painted Word
And several more
***What is it all about***
There is a saying about the 60's along the lines of "if you remember the 60's, you weren't there." Perhaps this is true because most of the legends of the 60's seem to have faded away now without having had their stories properly told.
Tom Wolfe however, was certainly there and in this book he takes the (albeit Walt Disney, vanilla flavoured version) journey with Ken Kesey and his family of Merry Pranksters as they toured American spreading the word of hallucinogenic adventures.
He travelled with these hippies on a mission on a Day-Glo painted school bus where new members of their family joined them and left them along the way playing music, playing pranks and often playing each other.
Through his book we meet legendary, if not infamous figures such as Ken Kasey, the writer of One Flew over a Cuckoo's Nest and Neil Cassidy, writer and friend of the Beat Generation as they take the LSD fuelled road trip.
We see how they are greeted from town to town, sometimes with open arms and free reign, often with suspicion and disdain.
We are invited to the exclusive Acid-Test parties where everyone experiences their own individual party tripped out on LSD laced punch and readily available grass. We even join Wolfe for his first accidental trip and tag along for what proves to be a very personal journey.
Casey unfortunately is forced into hiding after facing a pro-longed and certain prison sentence. The reader is privileged to read a story, no matter how fabricated of how he escaped, planning his own fake suicide and lived it up in Mexico before being reunited with his brothers and sisters who travel down to see him. Unfortunately, there is a note of disappointment hanging in the air, which indicates that the great journey had come to an end.
***What I liked about it***
I have been intrigued by Wolfe for some time but this was the first of his books I read. Wolfe has a magical way of describing his observations in intricate detail. Each of the people he writes about become so clear through his words you can practically see them sitting in front of you in their bell-bottoms and unwashed hair. His description of his first Acid test was remarkably well done. Not only did he capture the physical; he managed to describe the thoughts, images and feelings that were consuming him so intently and that is a very difficult thing to do, particularly when it involves moments so personal and close to the bone as an LSD trip is.
There is a nice flow to the story, which could have easily felt dis-jointed as new towns were visited and new members joined in the festivities. By connecting all the people so masterfully, he manages to avoid this, simply linking them in as if it were the reader's ordinary day to day life.
***What I didn't like about it***
I struggled with only one but fairly fundamental aspect of Wolfe's story-telling. Wolfe's journalism background is very evident throughout the book. Like any good journalist should do, he manages to keep himself someone distanced from the people he is talking about. As a man who hadn't (until later) experienced the trip the Merry Pranksters were on for himself, it was sometimes difficult to understand the connection he had with these people. Interestingly, I found his style of writing much more personal after he first experienced an LSD trip for himself. As he wrote about Kesey fleeing to Mexico and his time there as well as his state of mind he wrote as if he understood where Kesey was coming from. He was much less fearful of making assumptions than he appeared in the beginning. The journalist switched off and out came a man who was not quite a friend - more of a fan or even a groupie respected enough to be allowed to join the party.
A truly interesting and compulsive story written with beautiful style and imagery.
I don't read this book any more. It makes me cry. Which is odd, really, since Tom Wolfe was no hippy flower child, and by no means ranked himself among the people he describes here. So I just have to call this book an excellent piece of journalism, as he captures the spirit of the times, movingly and grippingly and with a remarkable understanding of what it must have been like to be one of those psychedelic pioneers. The story starts around 1964, with one Ken Kesey,(yes, the famous author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (and the criminally ignored "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "Sailor Song"))who is volunteering for some psychiatric studies of new chemicals, among which is, you guessed it, LSD. Supplies start to go walkies from the labs and into the waiting mouths of a small community about three years ahead of its time. Around a nucleus of Kesey, Neal Cassady(already famous as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road")Ken Babbs, and a few more, there built up the group that came to be known as the Merry Pranksters. This story details their journey across America in the famous painted bus with "furthur" on the destination board, the "happenings" in San Francisco, when acid was given out in a big vat of kool-aid (squash to you and me), Kesey's troubles with the law and his time as a fugitive in Mexico and the group's eventual break up. Wolfe manages to be objective and sympathetic at the same time while covering a chaotic and fascinating period of recent history. What makes this book special to me, and still makes the hair on my nape tingle as I write this (truly!), is the way he captures the genuine sense of revelation and optimism these people felt at the time. They truly believed they had stumbled across the cure for the human condition, and that it was only a matter of time before all the frightened control freak
s were lured out of their shells and everyone could live in peace. It only sounds naive now because it didn't happen. They didn't really know what to do with it all, true, and they greatly underestimated the backlash that straight society would unleash in its jealousy upon these free spirits. But for a while they owned the future and soared head and shoulders above the rest of the world. This book is a must for anyone with the faintest interest in human history, as are Kesey's own writings. Even if you've swallowed the party line and believe that LSD is merely a dangerous warper of minds with no redeeming features, you cannot help but be moved by the story of those who first helped to bring it into the headlines. Do yourself a favour.
As a witness to the acid-fueled capers of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, Wolfe captures a key moment in pop-culture history.