Of all the adjectives used to celebrate Tom Wolfe’s writing, the one I keep returning to is “definitive.” Over the course of his legendary career, Wolfe wrote the definitive treatment of everything from the origins of the 1960s counterculture, to the limousine-liberal infatuation with radicals, to the Mercury space program, to the excesses of New York City during the 1980s.
In a tribute published at American Greatness, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein recalls an especially memorable scene from Wolfe’s 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which chronicles the drug-fueled exploits of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
One of the passengers on Kesey’s psychedelic, cross-country bus trip is a young woman whom Wolfe initially refers to as “the Beauty Witch” and later dubs “Stark Naked” — because “she has taken to wearing nothing but [a] blanket and she sheds that when she feels like it.”
Toward the end of Chapter VI, the Prankster bus pulls up outside author Larry McMurtry’s home in suburban Houston. What happens next is . . . well, here’s how Wolfe describes it:
“Out comes McMurtry, a slight, slightly wan, kindly-looking shy-looking guy, ambling out, with his little boy, his son, and Cassady opens the door of the bus so everybody can get off, and suddenly Stark Naked shrieks out: ‘Frankie! Frankie! Frankie! Frankie!’ — this being the name of her own divorced-off little boy — and she whips off the blanket and leaps off the bus and out into the suburbs of Houston, Texas, stark naked, and rushes up to McMurtry’s little boy and scoops him up and presses him to her skinny breast, crying and shrieking, ‘Frankie! oh Frankie! my little Frankie! oh! oh! oh!’ — while McMurtry doesn’t know what in the name of hell to do, reaching tentatively toward her stark-naked shoulder and saying, ‘Ma’am! Ma’am! Just a minute, ma’am!’”
Wolfe then explains the deeper significance of this episode: Stark Naked, he writes, “had completed her trip. She had gone with the flow. She had gone stark raving mad.”
And what was the Prankster “trip” all about? “The trip, in fact the whole deal, was a risk-all balls-out plunge into the unknown, and it was assumed merely that more and more of what was already inside a person would come out and expand, gloriously or otherwise. Stark Naked had done her thing. She roared off into the void and was picked up by the cops by and by, and the doors closed in the County psychiatric ward, and that was that, for the Pranksters were long gone.”
It’s a sobering passage — a reminder that 1960s-style “liberation” produced a great deal of human wreckage.
Bauerlein explores this theme in his American Greatness piece: “Every time I hear the 1960s hailed as an age of liberation, Stark Naked comes to mind. She is a testament to the victims of the Sexual Revolution, all the young women who said goodbye to chastity and motherhood and ended up miserable and wasted. The sanguine remembrances of consciousness-expansion and goodbye-to-hang-ups collapse in light of a young woman who needs a family and a home, not sex and drugs.”
To read Bauerlein’s entire article, go here.