The Butterfly Kidd

Chester Anderson’s entire career was nothing if not interstitial. Born in 1932, he was part of the Beat Scene in Greenwich Village and North Beach. He published three books of poetry and several little magazines. He performed as a musician, playing two-part inventions with two recorders simultaneously. He wrote rock criticism and later edited several issues of Crawdaddy! Prior to writing The Butterfly Kid, he co-authored Ten Years to Doomsday with Michael Kurland. In Haight-Ashbury, in 1967 he was one of the co-founders of The Communications Company, the publishing arm of the Diggers, and wrote extensively about what was going on during the Summer of Love. (Joan Didion wrote about her unsuccessful search for Anderson in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.) Later he moved to Mendocino County and published several more volumes of fiction.

The Butterfly Kid, which was nominated for a Hugo for best novel in 1968, is itself interstitial – it’s a science-fiction novel, a detective story, and a comedy of manners (or lack thereof) that depicts Greenwich Village undergoing a psychedelic sneak attack of unknown origin. The visuals are quite vivid and in places potent enough to trigger a contact high.

It begins with a teenage boy sitting in Washington Square Park, generating hordes of wildly colored and patterned butterflies by rubbing his fingers together. The first-person narrator of the novel, a fictional Chester Anderson who plays electric harpsichord in the band Sativa and the Triplets, observes and befriends the teen. Shortly thereafter he observes a halo above the head of his porn-writer friend Andrew Blake. Someone, it turns out, is distributing what come to be known as Reality Pills.

At a party, that weekend Reality Pills are mixed into a blue drink concoction everyone imbibes. Anderson’s hallucination that night conjures up a period orchestra playing Handel’s Water Music: “Authentic livery of purple watered silk and plum plush with lots of lace, authentic instruments like serpents, recorders, krumhorns, sackbuts, oboi d’amore, cornets, brasses without valves and woodwinds without keys, two almost Turkish kettledrums carried by two husky ‘prentices each, all absolutely authentic and brand new and being played by virtuosi.”

Anderson observes: “The pill was obviously a brand-new drug, we decided, some kind of projective hallucinogen. You have the hallucinations and everyone gets to see them.” Riots erupt as the effects of the hallucinations multiply, and the National Guard is called in.

The source of the Reality Pills turns out to be the despised Lazlo Scott, an inept coffeehouse poet, and conniver who embodies the comedy of manners (or lack thereof) aspect of the novel. Scott’s: “major joy was to bring trouble and discomfort to everyone he encountered… He once caught a social disease and spread it broadcast, especially among the naïve and virginal, for upward of six weeks, until it got too uncomfortable even for him.”

Anderson and his friend and roommate, a fictional version of the writer Michael Kurland, decide they have to save the planet from this menace. They try to solve the mystery of who is supplying the Reality Pills, but they prove to be inept (Anderson) and feckless (Kurland) detectives. Anderson eventually tails Scott to a warehouse on Canal Street, where he winds up being imprisoned and tortured by Ktch, the leader of a phalanx of a dozen six-foot-tall blue lobsters who employed Scott to distribute the Reality Pills as the first stage of their plan to take over the earth. Although Anderson proves to have some ability to blunt the will of the lobsters by singing to them the Sativa and the Triplets song “Love Sold in Doses,” they eventually leave him bound up in the warehouse, and drive upstate to Croton Reservoir, into which they are planning to pour billions of doses of the Reality Pill.

Kurland and associates eventually free Anderson, and the race is on to round up a van-full of Greenwich Village Irregulars to drive upstate and foil the lobsters before it’s too late. The intrepid band does not have any weapons. But then Anderson remembers they have hundreds of Reality Pills he rescued from the warehouse. They are faced with the challenge of creating hallucinatory weapons and warriors to combat the monsters doing the bidding of the lobsters. The battle scenes at the end of the book are alone worth the price of admission.

The Butterfly Kid was last in print in 1980. Copies can be found on Amazon and Abebooks starting at around fifteen dollars.