I’m already regretting my decision to preface my review of the video game, El Shaddai: Ascent of the Metatron, with a series of quotes that I associate with the 1960’s psychedelic movement. I don’t regret that decision because I’ve decided that El Shaddai wasn’t “trippy” enough to warrant that introduction but because I’ve come across a book that is so inherently psychedelic and acid-soaked in nature that only the product of that time could ever really introduce the book’s contents. I recently finished Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it has instantly become my new favorite nonfiction book that I’ve ever read, it is simply in competition for one of my favorite books period. Channeling the manic energy and hallucinatory nature of the era, Tom Wolfe has fashioned the ultimate account of the hippie generation with language and details that immerse you so deeply in their world, you may leave the book with a contact high.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a chronicle of one very specific subset of the hippie movement of the 1960’s. Actually, you could say that this story follows the progenitors of the entire San Francisco hippie scene. Beginning with the release of noted author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) from prison for a marijuana charge and at the height of his reputation as the Godfather of the West coast psychedelic movement, the book is mostly spent in flashbacks to Kesey’s founding of a group known as the Merry Pranksters. After being exposed to LSD as part of a government experiment in the 1950’s, Kesey became an immediate disciple of the powers of “mind-expansion” and began to introduce it to his circle of literary friends and eventually to a whole generation of “heads”. Recruiting a group of fellow “believers”, Kesey embarked on a cross-country bus ride in a multi-colored Day Glo bus named “Furthur” on a trip to experience America and spread the word. Known for their elaborate costumes and aggressive promotion of acid, the Pranksters gained a reputation across the entire country that put them in touch with the law, Hells’ Angels, and was responsible for the success of the Grateful Dead.

The book is absolutely chock full of memorable characters and incidents. Ken Kesey will instantly draw you in with his sheer charisma and eccentricity, contrasted with his general down-to-Earthness (relatively speaking) as conveyed through Wolfe’s engaging writing style. For fans of beat generation classic, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, one of the principal protagonists of the book has his real life inspiration in Neal Cassady, the bus driver and hyper-active perpetual motion machine. There’s the arrogant acid manufacturer Owlsley, who ends up having a bad trip on his own acid. You get Mountain Girl, the youngest (at first) of Kesey’s devotees who isn’t afraid to go toe to toe with the Hells’ Angels and earn the respect of the most bad ass group of bikers in the country. You’ll meet Sandy Lehman-Haupt, the young sound engineer who will forever revolutionize all of the noises and sound effects you associate with the “acid rock” era while simultaneously battling his own inner demons under the influence of a not inconsiderable amount of acid. And this list is only really beginning to scratch the surface of all of the crazy and colorful characters who inhabit Wolfe’s pages.

Wolfe’s biggest strength, besides the simply fascinating nature of his true story, is the way, much like Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that he places you in the mindset of his characters through beautifully descriptive language. This isn’t a cut and dry account of a bunch of hippies going on a road trip across the country. Through extensive interviews with the participants of the trip as well as substantial access to their large vaults of recordings of the trip, Wolfe uses his language as a way to let you know what this trip was like for those on the trip. You read it, and you almost get an idea of what it’s like to be these characters and be zonked out of your mind on LSD. He describes both the visual effects of their drug use but also the spiritual and emotional effects in such vivid terms, that you can’t help but feel as if you were there. By the end of this book, you feel as if you’ve ingested everything the characters ingested and that you’ve been on this massive spiritual and physical journey across America. Honestly, if you can read this and not feel a little bit curious about what was inspiring all of this madness, then you might be about as square as they get.

For any one who was part of the 1960’s social upheaval or any kids my age who just always felt they were born in the wrong era, this is a must read. Tom Wolfe writes in a simple and unpretentious prose so you don’t feel a need to constantly reach for a dictionary; yet that doesn’t stop his diction and vocabulary from being exquisitely beautiful and/or evocative. For those with more right-leaning political beliefs, this book will probably offend you and just re-confirm every negative suspicion you had about the hippies, but for those of you who are a little more open-minded and curious, you could find your long-held beliefs and presuppositions about the era challenged and bettered through Wolfe’s hard-hitting journalism. It’s one of those great books that isn’t too difficult to get through, as compared to Gravity’s Rainbow, but it still leaves you with so much to think about and analyze when you’re done. It’s a classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A+