Outside Looking In by T.C. Boyle
We’ve all occasionally fantasized about penetrating some ultimate inner circle, being born into the right era and the right place so that any possible “fear of missing out” is a distant nonentity. T.C. Boyle’s hilarious and expertly crafted novel Outside Looking In pierces the expert ranks of hip culture and finds it’s not all it’s cracked out to be. Participating in university-affiliated studies of hallucinogenics seems like a surefire ticket to paradise, yet despite the group’s conviviality and overt sexuality, many of its disciples gradually spin their wheels in a manner akin to drug addicts. Outside Looking In is a story with brilliant pacing and insightful comedic timing, from a powerhouse mind that makes it all look effortless.
In early 1960s Boston, psychology PhD candidate Fitz Lohey works under the advisorship of Timothy Leary—a fictionalized version of the real-life cultural icon, that is. Leary and his cohort of colleagues and students conduct experiments/parties/orgies under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, “experiments” that are sanctioned by Harvard, at first. After losing the university’s blessing, the crew takes their business elsewhere. They establish a commune intended to dive deeply into the nature of existence, achieve a group consciousness and find the “ultimate light,” be it god or otherwise. But Fitz is a married father to a pre-teen son, and pausing his family’s lives to pursue these seemingly profound but ultimately carnal indulgences, proves severely impractical.
One thing this book is not, is an indulgent stream of consciousness mega-trip. After all, as Fitz’s wife Joanie says, “It’s hard to put into words…isn’t that the whole point?” Sure, Timothy Leary’s ragtag collective wants to free the subconscious, reject society’s prescribed norms, and map every inch of existence down to the last square centimeter. But as their “research” progresses, genuine enlightenment proves ever-elusive. Some realize this sooner than others, and Fitz is among the last to arrive. He’s instead seduced by the same indulgence and possessiveness the group ostensibly rejects. Fitz and Joanie extensively rationalize their choice to halt their careers in pursuit of a new plane of insight and well being. Yet when their access to these drug parties is jeopardized, the family is at each other’s throats more than ever. In this way they are no better than a life-imploding drug addict, basking in the temporary oasis of altered consciousness before the inevitable comedown crash-and-burn. No amount of philosophizing or university-sponsorship can excuse it.
Not a microgram of paper is wasted in Outside Looking In. Though it wouldn’t qualify as having a “tight” plot, it’s a master class in pacing and is consistently entertaining. The second of the novel’s three sections shifts perspective from Fitz to Joanie, a seamless transition you may not notice at first because Boyle keeps the aforementioned pursuit of group consciousness right at the forefront. Fictionalizing historical figures like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey runs the risk of “prequelitis”; we know generally how their true stories will pan out, so the presence of an imagined version risks feeling forced. Yet the prominent individual of Leary is riotously funny, a magnetic frontman who runs the entire circus with his agenda-free good vibes. One might expect the organization to descend into some kind of devious sex cult or crime syndicate, but it’s just a bunch of folks feeling groovy, man—even if their goals are in reality totally misaligned with the eventual outcome.
Prolific author T. C. Boyle firmly finds himself in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Tom Wolfe. In his delivery he’s confident from start to finish, all the while eloquent and hilarious. He earns the right to use occasionally verbose vocabulary; when he uses SAT words they’re an effectively humorous embellishment, instead of a surface-level affectation. How is it humanly possible to write a novel this fun, nearly thirty years into a career of consistent publishing? You’ll need a significant dose of LSD to figure that one out.