The Boys on the Bus

There is scarcely an aspect of the American character to which humor is not related, few which in some sense it has not governed. It has moved into literature, not merely as an occasional touch, but as a force determining large patterns and intentions. It is a lawless element, full of surprises.

—Constance Rourke, American Humor

. . . BECAUSE YOU SEE, the whole New Journalism thing was always more of a brand, a concerted PR campaign to aggregate a bunch of wildly disparate nonfiction writers of great talent and huge ambition into a movement than anything approaching a coherent critical category—Joan Didion, coolly observant and studiedly neurasthenic . . . Gay Talese, with his bespoke tailoring and equally bespoke prose . . . Hunter S. Thompson, harvesting dark epiphanies on the outlaw edges of American life . . . Norman Mailer , with his elaborate theories about everything and his habit of equating “history” with whatever it was he’d experienced. And Tom Wolfe, the Newest of the New Journalists as well as their chief propagandist and theoretician, with his headlong, run-on, Upper-Case-, ellipses-, em-dash-, and exclamation-point-strewn performative style, designed almost like a psychological weapon to reduce old-school copy editors to gibbering twitching wrecks, was actually, behind all the groovy Now camouflage of his trademark white suit and pricey John Lobb shoes, doing something called American Studies—yes, American Studies!—in which (bet you didn’t know this) he held a Ph.D. from Yale. His thesis on the League of American Writers focused on such lefty literary figures of the ’30s as Malcolm Cowley, the distinguished editor and critic, who . . . there are no accidents . . . discovered in his writing class at Stanford the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by this unpolished but weirdly charismatic Oregon wrestler Ken Kesey and hipped his employer, the Viking Press, to the existence of this hot property, which upon publication instantly launched its author into the literary empyrean, who in due course, after many colorful and druggy adventures in American cultural space-time, gathered about him a like-minded group of, well, nonconformists—most conspicuously the priapic madman monologist Neal Cassady, the inspiration for both On the Road and Howl—dubbed the Merry Pranksters. Kesey became the hero—superhero is more like it—of Wolfe’s zippily titled The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968),his first book-length work and one that, on the one hand, brought back the story, intrepid-reporter style, from the frontiers of psychedelia—the story, briefly put, concerning the Pranksters’ legendary LSD-fueled cross-country journey from La Honda to New York in that immortal bus (“Furthur” was its announced destination), amazing the squares and befuddling the fuzz out there in the American Outback, and Kesey’s drug bust, faked suicide, and eight-month Mexican exile—and that, on the other hand (and this is why the book remains a fascinating read half a century later), was a concerted and highly self-conscious act of mythmaking and tall-tale-ery utterly in the American grain. You can bet that back at Yale old Tom had been assigned Constance Rourke’s foundational text American Humor, her deep dive into the waters of American folklore, and you can see her fingerprints all over the way that Wolfe carefully took the facts of Kesey’s exploits on and off the bus (and no one has, as far as I know, disputed those facts) and brilliantly crafted, through the sly deployment of his signature arch irony and rhetorical exaggeration that owes much to Mark Twain (another guy in a suit) and other Western humorists, a portrait of Captain Trips that placed him squarely in the pantheon of larger-than-life figures, real and imagined, like Davy Crockett, John Henry, Big Mike Fink (King of the River), Paul Bunyan, et al. (he would later perform the same service for fighter jock and test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff). So, as badly dated as the raw material of the book is (a tour of Prankster material on YouTube will prove dismaying to all thinking humans), and as intrusive as Wolfe’s overthought style can sometimes be, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, with its archetypal American overreacher and his legendary quest-type journey at its center and even a theory about the nature of American religious experience, was built to outlast its peculiar moment and will remain a canonical work in, seriously, American Studies for a long time to come.

Gerald Howard is working on a biography of Malcolm Cowley.