The 1960s just won’t go away. As the battles over Vietnam are fought and re-fought in this year’s presidential campaign, the sexual mores from that period appear to be getting another looking-over. Anti-gay-marriage bills are on several state ballots, and abstinence suddenly is making a comeback: Free love is no longer so free.
Given the current conservative push-back on the cultural revolution of the 1960s, T.C. Boyle might be one of this nation’s most salient contemporary novelists. In his prior novel, Drop City, he told the story of a commune of hippies and burnouts who attempt to live off the land—and fail.
His new novel revisits the work of a man whose studies in sexuality laid the groundwork for that decade: Alfred Kinsey. We first see the famous sexologist—known here as Prok—through the eyes of Mr. Boyle’s narrator, John Milk, who in 1940 accepts a job as Kinsey’s lab assistant at Indiana University. In short order, Kinsey has seduced the shy and naive Midwesterner and convinced him that sex is a simple and a worthy biological need.
What follows is a sometimes amusing and sometimes tiresome yarn about Prok and Milk’s research, travels, sexual exploits and personal discoveries. To the outside world, Kinsey and his helpers present a unified front of pure respectability, but behind closed doors, the Inner Circle, as they are known, push the sexual envelope.
If books came with a parental rating, The Inner Circle would get at least an NC-17. Boyle’s Kinsey is a proponent of sexual experimentation for its own sake. Prok and his wife swap partners, and he indulges in more than a few homosexual dalliances. He sets up orgies and wife swaps and films the proceedings, and he even welcomes a bit of tough love, so to speak.
Like Boyle’s other two books centered on historical figures—The Road to Wellville, about the inventor of cornflakes, and Riven Rock, about the heir to a Chicago fortune—The Inner Circle unfortunately never achieves the ballast of his purely imagined fiction. Prok seems too much the traditional egomaniac, and Milk is too much of a pushover for anybody to really care about him.
As a result, it’s easy to read this novel with the same furtive speed that one does a dirty magazine: quickly and in search of the juicy bits. What a shame, because Boyle appears to have lived through the 1960s with the same watchful paranoia and wide-eyed wonder of novelist Robert Stone. It’s a sad commonplace for mainstream movies and songs to cash in on boomer nostalgia for the crazy days of their youth. But when guys of the stature of Boyle start to do the same, it makes your heart sink.