The Pump House Gang.
by Tom Wolfe.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 309 pp. $5.95.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
by Tom Wolfe.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 416 pp. $5.95.
If Tom Wolfe is to be believed, journals like COMMENTARY are on the way out. The literary-intellectual mode that was first fashioned in the great politico-critical reviews of Regency England has become irrelevant. Soon, gentlemen-amateurs like Podhoretz, Lichtheim, or Alter will no longer be able “to pass judgment in a learned way” on books and politics. Moral protest will be out.
Like its predecessor, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Pump House Gang is a collection of loosely related magazine pieces. The common theme is the decline of the old socio-cultural elites, and their replacement by an infinite variety of self-contained “statuspheres.” Wolfe introduces us to a number of such private worlds on both sides of the Atlantic—including teen-age California surf cults (“The Pump House Gang”), British employees of American ad agency branches (“The Mid-Atlantic Man”), Hugh Hefner (“King of the Status Dropouts”), Carol Doda (the topless dancer with the silicone-inflated breasts), and Bob and Spike Scull (the brash pop-art collectors who have challenged the social hegemony of the New York art establishment).
Though all this is not so new as he would have us believe (“statuspheres” can be traced back to 18th-century London), Wolfe deserves our gratitude for bringing these introverted microcosms to life with such vividness and wit. His command of dramatic comedy is demonstrated by such episodes as Bob Scull ordering a hunting-pink sports jacket from a scandalized Savile Row tailor; or Marshall McLuhan telling a packagers' convention that “packages will be obsolete in a few years. People will want tactile experiences, they'll want to feel the product they're getting. . . .” Hefner's revolving, circular bed, with its TV camera constantly trained on it in case “something beautiful happens,” certainly belongs in any social history of the 1960's. Wolfe has an instinctive feeling for the Byzantine complexities of status competition in metropolitan societies such as New York or London. His “New Book of Etiquette” ought to be handy for those who want to become upwardly mobile.
Wolfe accuses intellectuals and politicians today of exhibiting “a vast gummy nostalgia for the old restraints, the old limits, of the ancient ego-crusher: Calamity.” They welcome “with a ghastly embrace” the agonies of riot, poverty, and war. “What are you talking about?” asked Wolfe at a gloomy Princeton symposium with Günter Grass, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Markopoulos. “We're in the middle of a . . . Happiness Explosionl” He is the Hubert Humphrey of Pop. Bob Scull's favorite exhortation sums up his philosophy: Enjoy!
However, am I wrong to detect a note of panic in Scull's injunction? The Pump House Gang seems a sad sort of book, whether the author knows it or not. Most of its subjects are rather pathetic: the hair-obsessed Los Angeles teenagers endlessly cruising around the parking lot at Harvey's Drive-In; the La Jolla surfers, their intense but narrow pleasures doomed by inescapable adulthood; poor Carol Doda, paying for the present glory of “them” with perpetual inconvenience, and the prospect of a prematurely flaccid and sagging bustline; Hefner protesting that he lives a “damned full life” inside his aridly luxurious super-Playboy pad. The feeling that the alleged Happiness Explosion is little more than a series of unsatisfying pops is heightened by the fact that this breathlessly Now book, its publication mysteriously delayed for over a year, describes 1966 life styles—some of which seem already as quaint and remote as ancestral portraits.
Tom Wolfe practices the New Journalism—a mode of discourse which exploits the techniques of fiction in order to render fact more vividly. (Norman Mailer is the current master of this form.) Wolfe's standard device is indirect narration by a persona which, without quite ceasing to be the author himself, echoes the style, vocabulary, and values of his subjects. Everything depends upon getting the idiom right. Wolfe has a pretty good ear, but a steady read through The Pump House Gang reveals that he hasn't quite mastered all the scenes about which he writes so knowingly. His Londoners, New Yorkers, Ohioans, and Californians speak the same kind of Wolfese lingua franca: all of them—buds and studs—tend to be rank, freaking, raunchy and spastic, when they are not zonked or stoned out of their hulking gourds.
Wolfe is curious about his subjects, but has no real concern for them. They emerge as flat rather than round characters, each defined by one or two mannerisms. Hefner is always snapping upright and pulling “a great angular smile” while his cheekbones come out and his eyes turn on; McLuhan always pulls his chin down into his neck before pontificating; Robert Rauschenberg does nothing but ululate. The only three-dimensional figure is the author himself. We get a strong impression of him, with his hatred of literary intellectuals, his contempt for politics, his love of fashion and medical jargon, his outsider's obsession with inside stories, and his fetishistic lust for catalogues and minute descriptions. Above all, there is his horrified fascination with the sweating, excreting, decaying human body: topless waitresses' breasts dangling over the dinner plates in steamy restaurant kitchens, smelly armpits, old women with “veiny white ankles, which lead up like a cone to a fudge of edematous flesh,” and old men adjusting “the aging waxy folds of their scrota”—these are the stuff of Tom Wolfe's bad dreams.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test relates the saga of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. If Wolfe is to be believed, the whole contemporary youth-hippie style—drugs, hair, beads, body paint, communal living, doing your thing, granny glasses, Day-Glo, psychedelic posters, stroboscopic lights, mixed media spectacles, and acid rock—derives from this bizarre community which flourished in California from 1964 to 1966. This book helped me to understand some of the more sinister and puzzling habits of my teen-aged daughters in 1968 (according to Kesey, the East is always two years behind the West). Acid Test certainly deserves at least a minor place in the literature of American self-exploration—a little below On the Road (whose hero Dean Moriarty, in real life Neal Cassady, was one of the Pranksters), though infinitely beneath Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn.
Kesey became interested in drugs when he served as a guinea pig in some of the early experiments with LSD and other psychedelic agents. After the publication in 1962 of his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this muscular comic-book hero of a man became the leader of an extraordinary little cult of grass-smoking, acid-dropping, young cop-outs from suburbia who symbolized their liberated identities by renaming one another (Zonker, Gretchen Fetchin, Stark Naked, etc.). At their La Honda retreat, they practiced what might be called the new primitivism—spartan living in a rural setting, but with loudspeakers and microphones in all the trees, the leaves painted with Day-Glo, beds in the branches, LSD in the chili, and rock-music blaring day and night.
The Pranksters' most spectacular exploit was their journey to New York in 1964 to celebrate the publication of Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. They set out in an old school bus equipped with bunks, kitchen, refrigerator (containing LSD-spiked orange juice), and fitted out with thousands of dollars worth of electronic sound equipment. If Gogol's speeding troika was an apt symbol of 19th-century Russia, then this careering vehicle—crudely painted in psychedelic colors, with FURTHUR misspelled on the destination panel—is a perfect image of the recklessly irrational element in contemporary youth culture. Zonked as they usually were on acid, speed, or grass, the Pranksters took care to preserve every insane or ecstatic moment for posterity: miles of tape and forty-five hours of slightly out-of-focus color film (which cost Kesey $70,000 to buy and process) enabled Wolfe to reconstruct the whole chaotic trip. It all makes Jack Kerouac's 1957 idyl of life, On the Road, seem absurdly naive and respectable.
Wolfe extracts the maximum drama out of the Pranksters' encounters with the Esalen Institute, Timothy Leary's Millbrook community, the Unitarian-Universalist Church, the Vietnam Day demonstration at Berkeley, and the Hell's Angels. The high point of the Pranksters' activities came with the series of Trips Festivals which established the acid-rock movement, culminating in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in Watts, on February 12, 1966, when the Kool-Aid was secretly laced with LSD, and hundreds found themselves involuntarily turned on. By this time, Kesey himself was on the lam in Mexico, a celebrated fugitive from several charges involving marijuana. The last third of the book, describing Kesey's hallucination and attacks of paranoia in exile, his surrender to the U.S. authorities, and the Acid Graduation at which (for unexplained reasons) he renounced drugs, is inevitably anticlimactic after such visions of the way we (or our children) live now.
Wolfe may be heartless and his prose style vicious (particularly in this book) but he is intelligent and perceptive. He detects the strain of authoritarianism and violence that lurks beneath Kesey's theoretically libertarian leadership (and is symbolized by the Pranksters' alliance with the fearsome Angels); and he draws some interesting parallels between this 20th-century community and primitive religious cults. However, he does not succeed in convincing us that the brief but hectic flourishing of the Merry Pranksters was part of any Happiness Explosion.