If Kerouac was the Beat generations version of a Romantic, then Tom Wolfe seems to be the counter-literary movement: the psychedelic Modernist to Kerouac's hazy Beat "Transcendentalism." I was immediately struck by Wolfe's bluntness, his remove from the action, and his seeming aloofness to it. The first page of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" rings, at first very similarly to those crazy wandering bopping pages of Kerouac's novel. Hi sentences in this early passage are lengthy and rambling, gaining speed and a kind of desperation as a line forces any reader to inevitably be running out of breath, in a similar way to Kerouac's work. "Two more things they are looking at out there are a sign on the rear bumper reading 'Custer Died for Your Sins' and, at the wheel, Lois's enamorado Stewart Brand, a thin blond guy with a blazing disk on his forehead too, and a whole necktie made of Indian beads," he writes, later describing how, "Back in New York City, Black Maria, I tell you, I am even known as something of a dude. But somehow a blue silk blazer and a big tie with clowns on it and ... a ... pair of shiny lowcut black shoes don't set them all to doing the Varsity Rag in the head world in San Francisco" (Wolfe, 4). These lines had a similar pace and pattern to them like Kerouac's, and immediately, I expected a novel much like his.
But as soon as this first road trip moment breaks, we crash back into reality in a way that Kerouac never quite does, because reality for this narrator is as an observer, a sort of outsider, and unlike the passive, idealistic observations of Sal, Wolfe's narrator is certainly passing judgment.
His account of Ken Kesey and his hijinks and time in jail is rather sobering. Unlike Sal's early descriptions of Dean--as a man of the West, a force of nature, the guy he wanted to latch himself on to and have wild and crazy adventures with--Wolfe's description of Kesey is at once revelatory and realistic. "About all I knew about Kesey at that point was that he was a highly regarded 31-year-old novelist and in a lot of trouble over drugs . . . He was always included with Philip Roth and Joseph Heller and Bruce Jay Friedman and a couple of others as one of the young novelists who might go all the way" (4). Wolfe's narrator explains that, "I got the idea of going to Mexico and trying to find him and do a story on Young Novelist Real-Life Fugitive. I started asking around about where he might be in Mexico" (5). This narrator is an interesting parallel to draw to Sal from On the Road
, additionally, because both narrators immediately state that their intention, at the end of all this, is to write a book. But their approaches and relationships to the subject matter at very different.
Even when Wolfe is with the Pranksters, working on the psychedelic bus that is going to take all of them "beyond acid," like Kesey has said, he is one step removed from them, writing always with a sort of self-consciousness or awareness that this experience is separate from himself. His relationship with the events is much more journalistic, while Sal was in the very thick of the parties, the mess, the jazzing, the bopping. The most particular moment of disconnect between the narrator and his scene is when he goes outside to pee at one point, escaping the warehouse in which hey are working on the bus, and realizes, "But suddenly it hits me that for the Pranksters this is permanent. This is the way they live. Men, women, boys, girls, most from middle-class upbringings . . . this is the way they have been living for months, for years, and for some of them, across America and back" (11). And although he is participating, there is no sense here that this narrator wants, in particular, to become one of these vagabond Pranksters, as though he pities their life almost. Wolfe makes a point of letting us know that time has passed between Kerouac's Beats and the novel's present, by introducing us to a Neal Cassady and Allen Ginbsurg 40 years older than their Dean Moriarity and Carlo Marx counter-parts. But not only has time passed, but the tempo has changed, the America of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
is very different than Kerouac's, and Wolfe makes that abundantly clear.