Diametrically Opposed Road Trips in Beat Literature
In Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
, Ken Kesey and his entourage, known as the Merry Pranksters, take a road trip from California to the east coast via the South in a psychedelic-colored bus called “Furthur”. Given the fact that there are many overlaps between this work and Kerouac’s On the Road
, including cast of characters, the road trip theme, locations, narrative style (to a limited extent), it follows that there are an almost overwhelming list of comparisons to draw between the two books. However, one of the more interesting relationships between these classic Beat generation works is the contrast in the way they portray their initial road trips.
The differences between the two trips appear to be almost diametrically opposed: in On the Road
, Sal Paradise, aka Jack Kerouac, leaves New York City (the east) and hitchhikes west across the country by himself. In this first journey of his, the only substance he uses is Alcohol, and only in one segment of his voyage. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
, Ken Kesey leaves California (the west) and drives a bus across the country with a dozen other people. They constantly use LSD, marijuana and a variety of stimulants throughout their trip. Not only are their destinations, modes of transport, amount of people they travel with, and states of consciousness all different, their mindsets and philosophies associated with their expeditions also appear to be in opposition.
Sal Paradise’s motive in heading west appears to be a desire for adventure, exploration of the unknown, interaction with unfamiliar people, landscapes, and ideas, and generally opening himself up to a life-changing new experience unlike what he had been experiencing in New York. In contrast, the Merry Pranksters seem to be doing the opposite. They set off to make moves on square society: —“The trip had started out as a great bursting forth out of the forest fastness of La Honda, out into an unsuspecting America.” (87) Sal heads west intending to “take” from it, the Pranksters head east intending to “give” to it. They have pre-existing notions of who people are, and they’re not journeying with the goal of meeting new people and exploring new lands, but rather to bring them something new in the hope of challenging them or changing them through hip-ness and drugs.
The dichotomies that could be used to describe the relationship between the initial excursions in these two works—heading east vs. heading west, taking vs. giving, exploring vs. showing, discovery vs. delivery—make a good amount of sense given the general attitudes that both works share about the east. Wolfe relates that even in the midst of New York City, the world outside is square, boring, “comatose” (101), as they drive by 42nd street and Central Park West—and this seems to be a sentiment that Sal implicitly shares regarding the east coast.
What they have in common, though, is that you go until you simply can’t
anymore. Sal eventually comes down with dysentery, and Stark Naked, the Pranksters’ early witch-like companion goes crazy after a long drug binge. Furthermore, for all the differences in the method, direction, and objectives of these two classic American road trips, their underlying aims could be viewed as similar—reconnection with the earth, primal nature, the “origins”, etc.