Skip to content

On The Bus – a review

May 9, 2012

On The Bus

In the1964 Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters travelled around the United States of America in a day-glo bus turning people on to LSD.  Tom Wolfe captures their exploits in his journalistic novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test first published in 1968.  The people and places appearing in the story are real, the events described actually happened but this book is more than just journalism.  By using journalistic techniques and combining them with the artistic devices of the novel Wolfe has (as he says in an Author’s note to the book) “tried not only to tell what the Pranksters did but to re-create the mental atmosphere or subjective reality of it.”  He succeeded.  The experience of an acid trip is almost impossible to convey to the uninitiated but Wolfe describes the people, places and events so well that the reader feels he or she was there.

The book begins in San Francisco as Ken Kesey is getting out of jail.  He has been incarcerated on possession of drugs charges.  Wolfe, working as a journalist at the time and certainly not a hippy, has come out to join up with Kesey as he is reunited with his friends, the Merry Pranksters.  From there we are barrelled along on a roller-coaster ride of technicolour trips around the states on the bus nicknamed Further.  This name was mis-spelt as Furthur when painted on to the front of the bus.

Furthur was a 1939 International Harvester school bus purchased by Ken Kesey in 1964.  The bus was stripped down and remodeled inside and out for a trip across the country with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on board. The destination sign on the bus was painted to read “Furthur”. Beat legend Neal Cassady (who was the basis for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road) was the driver of the famous bus on its original trip to New York for the World’s Fair and the opening of Kesey’s new book, Sometimes A Great Notion.  The trip was filmed by Kesey’s friends and the film is now sold on as “Intrepid Traveller and His Merry Pranksters Leave in Search of A Kool Place”.

Ken Kesey (1935 – 2001) first came to literary prominence with his first novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest published in 1962. Randle Patrick McMurphy, a prisoner whose term is nearly over, decides to have himself declared insane so he’ll be transferred to a mental institution, where he expects to spend the rest of his time in peace.  McMurphy’s ward in the mental institution is run by an unyielding tyrant, Nurse Ratched, who has cowed the patients, who are mostly there by choice, into dejected institutionalised submission.  McMurphy becomes ensnared in a number of power-games with Nurse Ratched for the hearts and minds of the inmates. All the time, however, the question is in the mind as to just how sane any of the players in this actually are. Kesey’s novel raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of the state and power structures and could be interpreted on a number of allegorical levels.

One of the most important aspects of the bus trips was to spread the word around America about the psychedelic drug LSD. The word psychedelic is a neologism coined form the Greek words for “mind,” psyche, and “manifest,” delos. The term was first coined as a noun in 1956.  The acid tests as they became known were big happenings where bands such as The Grateful Dead played all night and LSD was served to the revelers mixed in with Kool-Aid (a soft drink).

While Furthur is rolling across the states in a riot of day-glo, Merry Pranksters spilling out of it drug crazed and dressed in stars and stripes, Wolfe reports on many different meetings from ex-Harvard doctor turned acid guru Timothy Leary to the Hell’s Angels.  The Pranksters lay out a welcome party for the Beatles at one point but the Fab Four don’t show up.

This book is different, like the people on the bus, in dealing with real people and events it is a historical documentary of a particularly exciting and crazy period in American history.  Anyone interested in the hippy movement of the 1960’s or mind altering chemicals would find this an interesting story to read.  Tom Wolfe despite his un-hip right wing leanings has managed to capture the brightly coloured live for now atmosphere of the hippy generation.


Best wishes, Stephen Livingston.



From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: