BOOK REVIEW: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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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.

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5 of my Favorite Banned / Challenged Classics

Banned Books Week runs from September 23 to 29 in 2018, offering a nice reminder about all of the books that are so awesome that some doofus doesn’t want you to read them.

Here are five of my favorites:

5.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Randle McMurphy conducts a con to convince authorities that he’s insane and belongs in an asylum rather than doing hard time in a prison. It’s a commentary on how free-spirits are viewed by society and the pressures put upon them to conform. It’s been challenged many times on the usual grounds of sex and language, as well as for the “glorification of criminal activity.”

4.) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: In a dystopian England, the head of a small band of thuggish teenagers is imprisoned and convinced to undergo operant conditioning that will make any future attempts to engage in violent behavior personally painful. The book is a critique on social engineering, though it should be pointed out that there are two different versions of the book in circulation, one with the final chapter written by the author and one without it, and the inclusion or deletion of that chapter has serious implications for the book’s message. Instances of sex and violence are the usual basis for challenges to this novel.

 

3.) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie: Two men fall from a plane and survive, one archangel and one demon. The title of the book, and much of its controversy, is owed to a plot point about the Islamic prophet Muhammad (Mahound, in the book) receiving both angelic and demonic guidance and prophecy. This is the most explicitly banned book on the list with at least a dozen countries explicitly banning it — most of them were Islamic countries offended by the portrayal of events when Islam was first coming into existence, but a few banned it out of public safety fears over extremist activity. The author is under Fatwa, religious approval of Rushie’s execution, by Iranian authorities.

2.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In this soft dystopia, people are kept in line by readily available drugs and promiscuous sex. Among the American Library Association (ALA) list of challenges to this book was one suggesting the book be banned because it: “makes [promiscuous] sex look like fun.” Which made me laugh a little.

1.) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: A family, bankrupted by the one-two punch of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, packs up and heads out to the promised land of California, only to discover that it wasn’t all that it promised. Objection to language is the most prevalent cause for challenges to this book.

BOOK REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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When a sane man, Randle McMurphy, enters an insane asylum to get out of prison, he turns life in the ward upside-down. The book’s fictional narrator is the patient who sleeps next to McMurphy. He’s an American Indian of giant stature, named Chief Bromden, who’s become convinced that he’s shrunk. Besides childhood problems stemming from his father’s emasculation—i.e. having to take his white mother’s name (hence, Bromden) instead of the more usual family name of the father—Chief is haunted by war. Our narrator has the hospital staff convinced that he’s a deaf-mute (and probably mentally deficient, as well) and thus has a unique view of the ward, the staff speaking freely before him.

McMurphy is everything the other patients are not. He’s gregarious, confident, and risk-loving. He’s also a con-man extraordinaire—hence, his ability to trick the authorities into shifting him out of hard labor and into the mental hospital. But he’s not completely lacking in morality, and displays a kind of hard-nosed compassion. While the patients are occasionally distressed by McMurphy’s behavior, they find his willingness to stand up for them (at least when it’s in his best interest, though later a sense of justice or camaraderie guides him) worth the price of his wheeling and dealing.

McMurphy’s real opposition is Nurse Ratched, a former Army nurse who runs a tight ward. Nurse Ratched is used to controlling the patients through a combination of soft power (maternally convincing them that she acts in their best interest), bullying, and fear of the treatments she can get the doctors to rubber stamp (namely electro-shock and—in extreme cases—lobotomy.) However, she’s met her match with McMurphy. He can play patients and doctors as well as she. He, too, is capable of being cool and cunning at the same time. He’s able to provide a counterbalance to the authoritarian democracy in which she asks the patients for votes after telling them what to think. The reader doesn’t know how, but knows this conflict between McMurphy and Ratched must come to a head to be resolved once and for all, and it is (but I’ll leave the how to the reader.) At times McMurphy seems to be ahead, and at other times Ratched has the lead.

The book was influenced by Kesey’s discussions with patients at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, where he worked as a night aide. Interestingly, Kesey volunteered for a study of hallucinogens during the same period (funded by the CIA as part of MKUltra), and, thus, for some of the conversations he was baked on LSD. At any rate, the experience had profound impact on him, and he became convinced that not all the patients were insane. Many, he believed, just didn’t fit well in society or families, and were pushed into institutions. The themes of the book are that differentiating sanity from insanity isn’t always easy and that mental healthcare professionals had too much power–and often wielded it unwisely.

The story is well crafted with an intense ending. The characters are developed, and this isn’t easy for the mentally insane—though Kesey’s experience with LSD may have helped on that end. Though we only really experience the insanity of Chief, because the perspective is his and he’s one of the few patients that legitimately seems to have trouble differentiating reality from illusion (at least through much of the book.) But we don’t really know how much of Chief’s problem is from his medication, and how much is the illness. There’s a beautiful descriptive scene in which Chief comes off his meds and is looking out the window watching a dog and the world go by. It’s vivid.

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s an evocative story with insights into mental health, some of which—sadly—are as valid today as they were then.

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5 Thought-Provoking Novels About Mental Illness


5.) Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Premise: A young woman who attempted suicide is told that in the process her heart was damaged and she now has only five days to live. While it might seem that this would be all the same to a suicidal patient, it turns out to matter.




4.) Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Premise: The lead character, Toru, doesn’t suffer from mental illness, but his life is shaped by those who have. He must decide between two women. One of whom, Naoko, has been institutionalized since her boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide. Kizuki had been Toru’s high school best friend, and this weighs heavily in Toru’s feelings of obligation. Add into this Naoko’s roommate–a sage influence in Toru’s life, despite being institutionalized herself.



 
3.) Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Premise: An adolescent boy, Caden Bosch, is transformed from a model student to a paranoid schizophrenic. The title refers to the deepest point on Earth, down in the Marianas Trench, and comes into play because the institutionalized Bosch believes he’s on a ship who’s Captain thinks all the treasure in the oceans got swept to the deepest point.




2.) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Premise: The unnamed narrator meets the eccentric Tyler Durden and soon Fight Club is born. It’s fueled by a feeling that men have been tamed to be turned into consumers. However, the underground fights are only the beginning, and our lead character is dismayed to discover that from the Club has sprung Project Mayhem with a nefarious terrorist plot.




1.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Premise: Randle McMurphy has convinced authorities that he’s insane for the purpose of getting out of hard labor in prison and into a “cushy” insane asylum. The ward is run by the iron hand of Nurse Ratched. McMurphy on the other hand is rebellious and unruly. The clash is inevitable. McMurphy increasingly disrupts Ratched’s sedate and harmonious ward (re: heavily drugged and cowed into submission.) The story is told from the perspective of a patient named Chief Bromden who has the staff convinced that he’s deaf and mute. Like McMurphy, he’s not what he appears. The book is a scathing indictment of how mental health care was conducted in Kesey’s day.