Tara St.


After reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” I found that I was most surprised by the ending of the novel. Up to that point, the ideals held by the Pranksters had been about everyone doing their own thing and learning to accept differences in perspectives or behaviors. All of a sudden, individuality had become a negative characteristic and was considered more of a burden or distraction. There was also a dramatic move from an emphasis on community and belonging to an emphasis on exclusivity and adhering to a set of norms, almost representative of a commune or some form of religion.
It was also shocking to see the dramatic change in Kesey’s character by the end of the novel. Throughout the novel, he remained the admirable leader figure who was always sure of himself and always took a firm stance on his beliefs. He began to lose that confidence and even began to experience self-doubt when he realized that he and the Pranksters were being surpassed by the new generation of hipsters. He could not handle the idea that the Pranksters had become “square.” His final words in the novel were: “We blew it.” This was disheartening because he was not able to recognize all he had accomplished, and was not able to see that he was part of the movement that paved the way for the new generation. He lost his optimistic sense of community and individuality, and instead of being content with himself, he was trying to push for something unreachable.

As I have been reading Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Test,” I have really been intrigued by Ken Kesey and his role in relation to the other pranksters. I have found many parallels between his character and the character of Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums.” Both of these men are central figures looked up to by many of the other characters in each novel. Both try to portray themselves as very accepting of the various ways of life embraced by those they encounter, but at the same time, they wish to exert some amount of control, and they preach their beliefs in an almost contradictory manner. They seem to view themselves as being the most experienced, and believe that they know what is best for everyone else. As a result, they are looked up to as leader figures.
For example, in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid test,” one of the characters by the name of Sandy, carries out an action that gets a positive reaction from Kesey. Sandy responds by saying: “He approves! Kesey approves of me! At last I have responded to something, brought it all out front, even if it is resentment, done something, done my thing- and in that very action, just as he taught, it is gone, the resentment… and I’m back on the bus again, synched in” (Wolfe, 93). While Kesey tries to emphasize the idea of everyone finding their own trip, this passage seems to suggest that many of the pranksters are carrying out their actions simply to gain the acceptance of Kesey.
Similarly, In “The Dharma Bums,” Ray Smith’s character seems to be controlled through much of the novel by Japhy Ryder. While Ray views Japhy as a mentor, Ray starts to become dependent on Japhy. He can no longer make his own decisions without consulting Japhy, and his idea of Buddhism begins to coincide with Japhy’s idea of Buddhism. He strives for Japhy’s approval and feels completely rejected when his ideas are discounted by this man. This reminded me of the exact relationship that existed between Kesey and the pranksters.

Throughout the novel “The Dharma Bums,” by Jack Kerouac, I found Ray’s characterization to be one of the most interesting of them all. As we discussed in class, many of his mannerisms and his attitude in general, sometimes came across as child-like. One aspect of this concept that particularly caught my attention in many circumstances within the novel was Ray’s need for acknowledgement from someone he looked up to and his need to be rewarded for his actions. I also noticed that he was very dependent on others. In my opinion, these are definitely characteristics of childhood behavior.
One scene in particular that led me to this assertion, was when Ray was trying to climb to the top of the mountain with Japhy. Before they had even decided to climb the mountain, Morley stated that he was too tired. Ray agreed, but as soon as Japhy said he was going to do it anyway, Ray said: “Well if you’re gonna go, I’m goin with you” (Kerouac, 81). This demonstrated Ray’s inability to decide for himself, and his reliance on his two friends to tell him what to do. It also portrayed his need for recognition from Japhy. The next day, they were all walking back to the car, and Ray’s feet became sore. Japhy ended up switching shoes with him so that they could carry on. This represented another example of Ray’s dependence.
After the mountain climbing experience, Ray told Japhy: “Well I’ve learned everything now, I’m ready. How about driving me to Oakland tomorrow and helping me buy all my rucksack and gear and stuff” (Kerouac, 96). I felt that Ray viewed the rucksack as a reward for all that he had learned and experienced at Matterhorn. Instead of reflecting on his experience, he immediately wanted to be rewarded. Again, this was an example of a child-like behavior exhibited by Ray’s character.

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