by Andrew Hultkrans
DURING THE Q&A at the end of Tom Wolfe's fortieth-anniversary
discussion of his gonzoid Merry Pranksters travelogue The Electric
Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe was asked about his opinion of Gus Van
Sant's forthcoming film adaptation. Wolfe replied, "Films that try to
capture tripshallucinationsalways fail miserably." As
counterexamples raced through my mindDavid Cronenberg's Videodrome,
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, hell, the Monkees' HeadI found myself
thinking, "Polite, laudatory conversations for the NPR set at
Symphony Space aren't exactly a freezer bag of 'shrooms, either."
I had high-ish hopes for last Wednesday evening, further piqued when
my editor told me that the publicist had asked us to arrive forty
minutes before showtime so he could "set us up." Would we be dosed?
Would our faces be painted in Day-Glo colors? Would there be, as at
the end of Blake Edwards's The Party, elephants, bubbles, and
Claudine Longet? At the very least, would there be a chaotic,
immersive multimedia environment, like the ones the Pranksters
created for their proto-rave acid tests using microphones,
Echoplexes, overhead projectors, oil-emulsion slides, etc.?
Sadly, no. Symphony Space's red and blue deco-and-girders interior
was mildly gaudy but hadn't been tricked out in any special way for
the occasion. Rick Moody, Wolfe's interlocutor for the evening, may
as well have been interviewing E. L. Doctorow. This seemed emblematic
of the blandly liberal, culturally cautious Upper West Side. The only
"setup" I received was a seat at the back of the house. I took it and
settled in for the duration.
After introductions by the venue's creative director, Wolfe and Moody
emerged onstageWolfe in one of his several hundred white suits,
Moody in a black scully. Just before Tony Award–winning actor René
Auberjonois was to read an excerpt, Wolfe said, "Nothing I've written
will sound as good as this." Auberjonois did sound good as he
performed a passage about the Pranksters' test drive of their
garishly painted, media-augmented school bus, dubbed "Furthur,"
though he lacked the unhinged, maniacal glee the book's subject and
Moody told Wolfe that Acid Test was a "paradigm shift" for him as a
young reader, exhibiting "excellence" in both its "exuberant language
and punctuation" and its reported narrative. In a light southern
accent peppered with dry-mouth clicks, Wolfe described the genesis of
the projecthis exposure to the letters that king Prankster and
novelist Ken Kesey had written to old friend Larry McMurtry while the
former was on the lam in Mexico. The evening peaked early (for me)
with this revelation: Wolfe constructed his uncannily convincing,
fly-on-the-blotter-sheet account of the Pranksters' 1964
cross-country bus trip retroactively, after extensive interviews and
a thorough examination of the group's film and audio archives. Later
in the discussion, Wolfe noted that Hunter S. Thompson once said, "I
actually live this, Tom Wolfe writes about it." Wolfe conceded this
as true, and it is a testament to his scarily empathetic imagination
as a young reporter.
Calling his book a "picture of a primary religion at its starting
point," Wolfe compared Kesey on meeting him in a California jail to
Jesus and Zoroaster, and the Pranksters, who were in attendance at
this first meeting, to the Apostles. Kesey spoke to them in parables,
Wolfe said, and the acid-fueled Pranksters spread the gospel of
psychic freedom across the country, sparking the hippie
counterculture. He hastened to add, however, that Kesey was not an
Indian-style guru, teaching silent meditation and trance-induced
enlightenment: "He was loud. His text wasn't the Bhagavad Gita; it
was Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange." Wolfe hadn't read One Flew over
the Cuckoo's Nest when he began his reporting but was tremendously
impressed when he did. He recalled Kesey telling him, "Writers are
recorders of earthquakes that happen far away. On acid, you're the
lightning rodit's all flowing through you."
Asked by Moody why the Pranksters allowed a suit-wearing straight who
eschewed LSD to hang out with them, Wolfe replied, "I'm not
overbearing," adding that Kesey hated "weekend hipsters" so much that
he would weed them out by suggesting naked motorcycle rides down
California's twisting, two-lane Route 1. He recalled how Kesey once
tried to persuade him to partake in the psychedelic sacrament by
saying, "Why don't you put down that pen and paper and just be here?"
Wolfe said he considered it for about seventeen seconds but declined.
Due to the chasm of taste and predilection separating Wolfe from the
Pranksters, reporting the book was "not funI was so far 'off the
bus' it wasn't funny."
It should be noted that while Wolfe has written some indisputably
brilliant books, he is given, these days, to saying some staggeringly
stupid things. Noting how the psychedelic era turned out to be
"novel-proof," he went on a silly soliloquy about how no novelist
could imagine Paris Hilton's life story. Didn't Jackie Collins and
Danielle Steel virtually invent Paris Hilton? Wolfe's animus for
blogs and "citizen journalism" is well known and arguable, but do I
really have to swallow his fatuous pronouncement that the subprime
mortgage disaster was caused by the unpleasantness of on-screen
reading? That predatory lenders made bad loans because they couldn't
bear to read the applications on a computer? Please. This is the
wrong stuff. Nevertheless, the questioners were rapturous, one going
so far as to ask Wolfe who made his suits. The man who shares his
bespoke style with John Travolta and Ricardo Montalbán dutifully gave
his tailor's name and address, as well as that of his shirtmaker. I
left during the applause, in search of Kool-Aid.