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Outside Looking InReview - Outside Looking In
by T.C. Boyle
Hachette Audio, 2019
Review by Christian Perring
Sep 24th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 39)

T.C. Boyle has established himself as a big name novelist, reflecting on twentieth century themes, and writing fictionalized accounts of some major figures. This one is about Timothy Leary, once a Harvard professor, who gained notoriety for promoting hallucinogens. But Boyle makes his main character a graduate student, Fitz Loney, who has Leary as his advisor, and who follows Leary even after they get kicked out of Harvard. Fitz is already married to Joanie, and they have a son, Corey, he has responsibilities. But he is fascinated by a large project to find ultimate truths about nature, God, and other dimensions of reality. Both he and Joanie start going to Leary's home to partake of the "sacrament," LSD, in evenings which are an uneasy combination of scientific experiment, religious event, and bohemian party. The story moves from Cambridge, to Mexico, to a small town in upstate New York. The group around Leary grows and becomes wilder, and the story serves largely as a morality tale. The basic message as exemplified by Fitz is that hallucinogens don't have the dramatic beneficial effects on one's personality and understanding of the world that its advocates suggest, but it is basically just another means of avoiding reality and it does have the power to ruin one's life. Leary is charismatic and full of ego, and everyone around him thinks that he has gone deep and discovered hidden truths in his exploration of the mental world through the use of LSD. We don't get to learn much about Leary's own ideas, and he seems more like a cult leader than a professor.

So Fritz is a dupe and an irresponsible loser, ready to sacrifice his marriage and risk the safety of his own son because he is taken in by a bunch of bullshit. This goes on for 400 pages, over 14 hours in the audiobook. What is there to keep the reader going? There are a few factors. The book is interesting as a source of historical information about the culture around hallucinogens in the 1950s and '60s, its relation to counterculture, and why the excitement about the potential of LSD died away, especially given the recent revival of interest in it in medicine. Boyle has done some research, and he gives the reader a sense of the era. There are many references to modern jazz and some to the early releases of the Beatles. As the 1960s approach, issues of women's equality start to emerge, and the rejection of mainstream values of the past is central to what is going on. This is combined with the idea that psychological research is objective and capable of radically transforming our knowledge of the world. These are perennially attractive claims, and it is revealing to see how they unravel.

Another factor to keep the reader engaged is Boyle's writing, with a lot of dialog. There are many interesting characters and the plot moves quickly. The sentences flow easily. The book is a pleasure to read. The time of the group in Mexico is especially enjoyable, and then, when they end up in upstate New York, in the Hitchcock mansion near the town of Millbrook, in the Hudson Valley, the interaction between the Leary group and the locals provides dramatic material. The performance by Johnathan McClain of the audiobook does justice to the writing, and even carries off the foreign accents of some of the characters. McClain is suitably arch and circumspect, but manages to inject some sympathy into the dialogues.

Outside Looking In has plenty to grab one's attention. Those who suspect that hallucinogens could still provide some important knowledge will probably be disappointed by Boyle's dismissive treatment of the suggestion -- this is not an open-minded or even very thoughtful investigation of the topic. But there is plenty here to provoke readers who are curious about how psychology developed in the twentieth century.


© 2019 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring teaches in NYC.


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