Book Review: Outside Looking In by T.C. Boyle
With this novel about Timothy Leary and LSD in the early Sixties, T.C. Boyle has written a mighty book – and a gift
Reviewed by David Gaines, Fri., April 12, 2019
At one point in Moby-Dick, Ishmael states, "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea." T.C. Boyle has chosen LSD in the early 1960s as his theme and written a mighty book. It even has a few fleas along the way.
Outside Looking In is Boyle's 17th novel. Like Moby-Dick, it is about the infinite and the quotidian, the granular and the cosmic. Boyle starts us on our way with epigraphs from Lennon and McCartney about turning off our minds, relaxing, and floating downstream, and from Wordsworth about the search for "the visionary gleam." The focus is upon the inner circle of Harvard graduate students working with Dr. Timothy Leary (known to all the inner circle as Tim) and Richard Alpert (known as Dick and years later to become Ram Dass) from 1962 to 1964. They start out as scientists and become celebrants who surrender to the void, go deep, and wear sunglasses.
While Boyle's story of LSD begins in a laboratory in Switzerland in 1943, most of the action takes place in rental houses in Cambridge, at a beach hotel in Mexico, and within and without a 64-room mansion in the Hudson River Valley. At first, the "sacrament" (as repurposing Catholic Tim calls LSD-25) is shared after a few martinis and as Coltrane or Satie play on the stereo. As the years pass, the martinis remain (unless the inner circle is in Mexico drinking pre-sacrament margaritas) and the Beatles and Ravi Shankar make their way to the turntables. Colors explode, shapes shift, sex improves (Boyle describes the blur of combinations as a "communal spin the bottle"), and boundaries disappear. At least temporarily.
Boyle turns a kaleidoscopic eye to these inner voyages, be they good, bad, or ugly. The scientists-turned-explorers are looking for The Light. They want to see God, to experience and document what one calls "the ineffable," be it through neurochemistry, religion, sex, or aesthetics. How that feels comes into high and powerful relief in remarkable chapters surrounding Good Friday, Halloween, and the Fourth of July.
Outside Looking In works its magic because Boyle deftly alternates between his prismatic vision and his eagle eye for the details and spirits of social reality. He brings the New Frontiers of both Kennedy and Leary back to life. Tim starts out in tweed and ends up in white robes. Desert boots and huaraches appear. The inner circle reads Hermann Hesse and throws the I Ching. Gunsmoke, The Defenders, and The Twilight Zone are on television. The Yankees of Mantle and Maris battle the Red Sox of Yastrzemski and Malzone. Mad magazine, mandalas, a significant sombrero, talk of karma, and Maynard Ferguson's monkey named Thelonius (he provides the fleas) all pop up along the way. Women dress up as Jackie Kennedy for Halloween, men wear Nikita Khrushchev masks, and teenage girls have third eyes on their foreheads. At least temporarily.
Most significantly, the Loney family – grad student Fitz, sub-sub-librarian Joanie, and their adolescent son Corey – serve as the canaries in this experimental coal mine. One of the mysteries driving Boyle's page-turner is how they will fare in this brave new world. Tim – variously described as magician, jerk, guru, impresario, and God – is at the center of the circle. But the Loneys are the heart of the matter.
Whatever Boyle suggests or readers glean (or already know) about LSD and The Light, we once again realize that reading is a sacrament and, in my eyes, Outside Looking In is a gift.
T.C. Boyle will be reading from and signing copies of Outside Looking In on Sat., April 13, 3pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit www.bookpeople.com.
Outside Looking Inby T.C. Boyle
Ecco, 400 pp., $27.99