- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

THE INNER CIRCLE

By T.C. Boyle

Viking, $25.95, 416 pages

REVIEWED BY STEPHEN BARBARA

T. C. Boyle’s 10th novel, “The Inner Circle,” dramatizes the story of Alfred C. Kinsey and his notorious Institute for Sex Research. Just how much of the novel has actually been invented is a question that will interest readers. In his author’s note, Mr. Boyle tells us that all “characters and situations” in the book are fictional, with the exception of the historical figures of Kinsey and his wife, Clara.

But this proves to be untrustworthy, for certain events in the book and many of the characters have clear parallels in the life story of Kinsey and his initiates, which has been documented by such biographers as James H. Jones and Cornelia Christenson. This leaves the reader, and the critic, with much to puzzle over.

The narrator of the novel is John Milk, a shy Midwestern boy in his fourth year at Indiana University. Reared by a repressive mother and inexpert in the realm of sex, Milk is drawn to Professor Kinsey’s course on marriage, which includes lurid slide-shows of the male and female anatomy. Electrified by Kinsey’s free-spirited rationalism, Milk volunteers his sexual history to Kinsey (there is little to tell) and soon becomes the first member of Kinsey’s secret research team — the “inner circle” of the title — devoted to conducting a quantitative study of human sexuality.

Though Milk does not say so (he is too much of a dope to notice such things), it is clear that Kinsey asks him to join the circle because he makes a pliant disciple. Kinsey has a second motive: He wants to seduce Milk — which he does early on in the book. Mr. Boyle may have invented the details of this seduction, but we know from Kinsey’s biographers that he did in fact conduct numerous affairs with his students.

John Milk is a character who is weak in every way. Passive, self-doubting, and frequently spineless, he finds himself enraptured by the confidence and certitude of “Prok” (short for Professor K.). A large part of the novel, then, follows Milk’s developing sexuality (he sleeps with Kinsey’s wife, for instance) and his forays into sexual research, which demand that he travel across the country with Kinsey collecting the sexual histories of as much of the population as can be covered — ordinary people, prostitutes, prison inmates, wealthy burghers, college professors, students, and others.

In these pages, Milk illuminates the working methods behind Kinsey’s landmark volumes “Human Sexuality in the Human Male” and “Human Sexuality in the Human Female,” later known commonly as the Kinsey Report. He also provides a hagiographic portrait of Kinsey as hero, genius, pioneer, and savior — a great man advancing not only the field of science but conducting a personal crusade to liberate human sexuality from the shackles of religion, taboo, superstition, and morality.

Those who know Kinsey’s biography will not be so easily seduced by this laudatory characterization. Kinsey was a kind of super Anglo-Saxon scientist, of the sort who pigheadedly believed in progressive rationalism. This meant that, for him, human sexuality was no different from animal sexuality, and he regarded such things as love and monogamy as inimical to the light of progress.

Likewise, he failed to see anything but sentimentality in the taboos against pedophilia, bestiality, and other perversions. Of course, Kinsey was raised in a puritanical household, and it does not take a Sigmund Freud to see the motives behind his scientific research.

In any case, Kinsey’s irreverent ways are convincingly worked up by Mr. Boyle, and — all in the name of science — we see him staging orgies, arranging wife-swappings between his colleagues, and sleeping with more or less every member of his inner circle. Given Milk’s progress from sex-shy ingenue to experienced sex researcher, none of this would have caused him trouble — except that he falls in love with, and later marries, an Irish Catholic named Iris, and as the novel advances it becomes a question of who will win Milk’s soul, Prok with his rational liberalism or Iris with her old-fashioned belief in love and fidelity.

There is something of the angel-versus-devil in this conflict, but, like Candide’s teacher Pangloss, both Milk and his wife partake generously in the scientific experiments prescribed by Kinsey. Iris cheats on Milk with a colleague named Corcoran; Milk is seduced by Corcoran’s wife; and Kinsey continues to lavish his attentions on Milk. But Iris, being more passionate and therefore more loyal than Milk, refuses to sleep with Kinsey at one of his orgies, which leads to both marital and professional trouble for Milk (though he eventually patches things up with her).

The unhappiest part of the story is not that Milk cheats on his wife but that he never chucks Kinsey and his bizarre research project. Instead, he exists uneasily as both faithful husband and devoted sex researcher, cravenly compromising the ideals of both his wife and his employer.

There is a graver problem in the novel than the characters, though, and it is the poor quality of the prose. Mr. Boyle is capable of writing good English, but in his attempt to capture the dull, conventional voice of John Milk, he frequently gives us insufferable passages, like this one: “At any rate, the job was something of a plum for me, and for the first week or two I snapped out of the funk that seemed to have descended on me, exhilarated by the free nights and the extra change in my pocket” — which is true to Milk’s voice, no doubt, but marred by three cliches.

In the end, one can admire “The Inner Circle” for the way it dramatizes the battle between Kinsey, the representative of science and progress, and, Iris, the standard-bearer of primitive passions such as love and jealousy. Yet it turns out to be neither the inspiring love story Mr. Boyle meant it to be, nor a celebration of the sexual revolution. Instead, it gives us an uneasy, and not very admirable, compromise between the two — and Mr. Boyle should have known that literature, like love, is jealous.

Stephen Barbara is a writer in Hoboken, N.J. He has written for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

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