Contrary to popular opinion — and maybe his own as well — Tom Wolfe did not invent New Journalism. There were Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin and, before them, any number of American writers who shoved nonfiction into the realm of literature. But it was Wolfe — the Southern dandy in the cream-colored suits — who truly turbocharged journalism with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe followed author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters through their LSD-soaked bus trips back and forth across America at the very high point of the Sixties.
The characters stand out: the veteran Beat Neal Cassady, at the wheel for one last road trip; Mountain Girl, the gentle-souled Amazonian; and Kesey himself, at the center of it all and yet strangely unknowable. But the real star, of course, is Wolfe’s kandy-colored prose, as pulsing with life as any novelist’s. “Somebody has to be the pioneer and leave the marks for others to follow,” writes Wolfe, referring to Kesey and his band. But Wolfe could have been describing himself and the legion of nonfiction writers, so rarely his equal, who would follow in his wake.