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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test | Study Guide

Tom Wolfe

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test | Symbols


Shiny Black Shoes

According to Tom Wolfe, the Merry Pranksters and other acidheads believe shoes can tell a lot about the person wearing them. The best shoes, handcrafted leather boots, are worn by the best people: other acidheads. Low-cut shoes, like sneakers, high heels, and other dress shoes, are worn by "squares" and are decidedly uncool. The worst shoes are shiny black dress shoes like those worn by law enforcement. Always on the lookout for police, acidheads and other drug users know to start running when they see a pair of shiny black shoes headed their way. These same shoes chase and catch Ken Kesey and Hassler on the freeway in Chapter 26. They symbolize the constant threats of forced conformity and the end of the Pranksters' freedom.

Red Tide

The Pranksters encounter the red tide in Manzanillo, Mexico. Caused by an overabundance of single-celled, toxin-releasing creatures called dinoflagellates, red tide generally results in the mass deaths of fish and other sea creatures. When the toxins become airborne, they can cause illness in humans. It's bad news all around, disrupting fishing- and sea-based economies and harming the health of people living in affected areas. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the red tide symbolizes the Merry Pranksters themselves, who also cause disruption and destruction wherever they go with their loud music, loud voices, and disregard for social conventions. "Focking plague themselves, riding about in a devilish criminal bus," Tom Wolfe writes in the voice of Manzanillo's local residents.

The red tide can also be viewed as a symbol of the Pranksters' waning spirit. Kesey is lying low in Mexico to avoid arrest for two charges of marijuana possession. The other Pranksters have finally joined him, stuck in dilapidated houses with little to do but read the Bible and Kesey's few philosophy books. These months are a spiritual and creative low point for them. When they leave Manzanillo and the red tide, the parties start again.


Ampex is a sound-equipment company that made a name for itself with its recording technology. The Pranksters and Tom Wolfe use the company's name when referring to the tape-recording device at the center of the Pranksters' sound system. Sandy Lehmann-Haupt, the Pranksters' first sound guru, purchased the Ampex with $400 of his own money before the bus trip across the United States. When he wants to sell it to pay for his second stint in rehab, Ken Kesey refuses, arguing it is communal property and thus belongs to all the Pranksters. Sandy left without it. When he rejoins the Pranksters in Mexico, he does so with the sole purpose of getting the Ampex back.

The two men's relationship is tenuous at best. Sandy resents Kesey's power over the Pranksters; Kesey doesn't like that Sandy is always "getting off the bus" only to get back on again. But something inside Sandy also craves Kesey's approval. No matter how much he wants, physically, to get off the bus, he always keeps coming back, drawn to Kesey like a moth to a flame. Reclaiming the Ampex as his own is Sandy's way of symbolically taking back the control Kesey once held over him. With the Ampex in his arms, Sandy is free.

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