Outside Looking In by TC Boyle – a review
Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream in this psychedelic satire from TC Boyle...
American novelist TC Boyle is the master of the group dynamic and the pressure cooker scenario, and in his case study of early 60s psychonauts he makes excellent use of these strengths. The meticulously-researched and rendered (another Boyle trademark) novel dramatises Dr Timothy Leary’s early forays into psychotropics with his team of willing psychologists, wives, and hangers on. Initially supported as bona fide research within the hallowed halls of Harvard, Leary’s experiments quickly escalate into drug-fuelled binges last days. The inner circle relocate their Dionysian ‘scene’, a Hakim Bey like ‘Temporary-Autonomous-Zone’, or pirate-utopia, first to Mexico, and then to a sprawling mansion in Poughkeepsie, upstarts New York, attracting notoriety as they go. Our Everyman and woman into this inner circle is one of Leary’s academic acolytes, Fitz, and his wife Joanie. The novel is a kind of bildungsroman, a Hesse-ian Journey to the East, but instead of enlightenment (which is continually just out of reach, despite the increasing dosage) there is an anti-epiphany awaiting at the end of the road. As the Sixties really starts to crank it up, and Hoffman’s LSD or ‘acid’ hits the streets, Fitz and his fellow pioneer psychonauts start to experience the comedown – the disenchantment and ennui of endless hedonism, the dysfunctionality and derangement it causes, and the rapprochement of the mundane. Leary is a kind of Wizard of Oz figure, luring them up the lysergically-soaked yellow-brick road, but behind the hocus pocus of his personality cult there is little substance. All tomorrow’s parties seem like an abnegation of responsibility, a perpetual teenage rebellion by adults who should know better. The children of the psychonauts are allowed to run feral, and indeed, given a taste of the forbidden fairy fruit – so, the book is, among other things, a non-judgemental account of catastrophically bad parenting. And yet there is an exhilarating buzz about the picaresque misadventures of the squares – Fitz and Joanie – in Wonderland. Each scene is lucidly evoked with the loving attention to detail of a master craftsman. Yet combined with the importance of ‘Setting’ (in terms of the ‘trip’ of the book) is the ‘Set’ (the mindset of each of the players), which Boyle, as a shrewd observer of the human condition, does brilliantly. His characters are convincingly depicted in all their ticks, peccadilloes, and raging neuroses. The dialogue is razor-sharp, and there is never a dull chapter. Boyle both entertains and informs, while never preaching. The reader is left to judge the behaviour of these academics behaving badly for themselves – and the ‘rap sheet’ is rather impressive. It is a wild, technicolour ride. Turn on, tune in, drop out and enjoy! But don’t expect to make it back to Kansas.
Kevan Manwaring, 21 Feb. 21