This book offers an account of the activities of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during the mid-1960’s. Kesey is best known as the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a best-selling novel that was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson. The charismatic Kesey led a group of nomadic hippies who came to call themselves “the Merry Pranksters.” There were many counter-culture strains during those years. Some looked East, and pursued spiritual traditions like yoga and Zen. Some were academics who sought to maintain scholarly rigor in adventures through the doors of perception. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters occupied more whimsical territory. As the “prankster” name suggests, taking things seriously wasn’t their way. Their mythology was in comic book superhero tales, and their moral code hedonistic. The titular prank had to do with spiking Kool-Aid with LSD (a.k.a. Acid) – not to be confused the Jim Jones cult which poisoned Kool-Aid and engaged in collective suicide over a decade after the events described in this book took place.
LSD plays a major role in the events of this book. While it’s not mentioned in Wolfe’s book, an interesting thing to note is that Kesey was introduced to hallucinogens through a program funded by the CIA’s nefarious MK-Ultra program. Kesey was working as an Aide at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, and he volunteered for a study on the effects of a number of psychoactive / hallucinogenic drugs. It seems that Kesey took a shine to these substances (most notably LSD) because he kept pursuing psychedelic experiences long after the study was over and even after he’d run afoul of the law (though his arrests were marijuana-related and not about hallucinogens.)
Tom Wolfe used beat-poetic prose to convey the feel of Merry Prankster life. There are even a few free verse poems in the book as well. And, of course, the dialogue conveys the tone of this community. The language is often fun and trippy in a way that contributes to the story. Wolfe put an author’s note amid the book’s back matter that explains his desire to not only tell people about the events but to convey the atmosphere, and I felt he did a nice job in that regard.
The central story hinges on Kesey faking his death (not skillfully) and fleeing to Mexico to evade punishment on his initial marijuana charges, and then — after some time in Mexico — he returned to the US, ultimately doing his time. Over the course of the book, the Pranksters develop a rapport with the Hell’s Angels, they cross paths with the likes of Beat giant Allen Ginsberg and the founders of the Grateful Dead. While it’s nonfiction, and thus not meant to follow a story arc approach beat for beat, Wolfe does tie things up with a nice bow, ending with the Prankster “Graduation” which would see the end of that group before Kesey went off to serve time on his combination of marijuana and evading justice charges. We see a change in Kesey in the last couple chapters as he’s advocating pursuit of the psychedelic state of mind without the use of drugs. It’s hard to say how much of this is trying to cooperate to get better terms, how much it was just growing up, and how much it was a true change in his core beliefs.
I enjoyed this book. It’s fun to read and offers insight into an era with which I wasn’t particularly familiar. I’d only known Kesey from his blockbuster book and a vague reference to his being a participant in a MK-Ultra funded program, and so it was interesting to learn about the intriguing life of this author.