The image of a “wino” is often of some drunk homeless person, not a child who performs a ritual to make unsweetened Kool-Aid. However, the main character in Richard Brautigan’s “The Kool-Aid Wino” treats Kool-Aid as a wino and as a priest—something to offer escape and something to offer redemption from the life of poverty and misfortune. Brautigan uses the character and events in “The Kool-Aid Wino” to develop the moral that comfort can be found in an imperfect world.
The main character in the story is a young boy who is part of a large and poor German family who is unable to work because he is “ruptured,” which means he has a hernia, and the family is without money to fix the problem. However, instead of making the character pathetic, Brautigan adds touches of humor and peculiarity, such as the boy’s belief that wearing clothes to bed was important because he says, “‘You’re only going to get up, anyway… You’re not fooling anyone by taking your clothes off when you go to bed.’” This is the language of an outsider or someone who does not follow social rules, and it would fit perfectly coming from a wino or hobo who was giving a particular brand of “wisdom.” The eccentric nature of the boy is further referenced in the title, helping to color the character and his slanted view of the world for readers. His odd way of looking at the world, however, is balanced by his spiritual character. When making the Kool-Aid, the boy is described as, “the inspired priest of an exotic cult.” Likening the boy to a priest makes his actions for preparing Kool-Aid to seem holy and full of faith, giving the boy some transcendence above his situation. Through this development of a character with traits of both a wino and priest who seeks physical comfort and a religious experience, Brautigan develops the moral of the story.
The plot events also contribute to the theme by describing the ritual of making unsweetened Kool-Aid, which serves as a bittersweet climax for the story. It is a sad and insignificant act—to make watered-down, unsweetened Kool-Aid—but it is the climax of the story as well as the point in which the boy transforms from a kid with a hernia living in poverty into something more significant because “it was a romance and a ceremony. It had to be performed in an exact manner and with dignity.” And like romance, the act is seductive and idealistic—there is no possible way the drink the boy made could taste good, having just a “shadow of potency” and being without sugar, it would likely be water that tasted slightly bitter and sour. However, for the boy it is romantic, a potion, and the power given to it allows him to “[create] his own Kool-Aid reality and illuminate himself by it.” This last event, the resolution of the story, also articulates the moral perfectly. Though the story ends with this line, it is implied that the boy will spend the rest of the day drinking his Kool-Aid while other members of his family work. Since it is just Kool-Aid and not alcohol, the boy cannot escape reality through inebriation. Instead, he “illuminates himself” as a way of coping with the world.
“The Kool-Aid Wino” is a humorous story with a tender moral. Through the development of the slightly off-kilter main character and transforming his small and unimportant activity of making Kool-Aid into a significant ritual, Brautigan articulates the moral that comfort can be found in an imperfect world.