Books: “Outside Looking In” by T.C. Boyle
Biographical fiction is a tough nut to crack. I can think of only two recent novels where it’s worked. The first, Colm Toibin’s “The Magician,” which paints a vivid portrait of Thomas Mann and his eccentric family.
The second, which I’ve just finished reading, is T.C. Boyle’s 2019 novel “Outside Looking In,” which turns out to be a somewhat frightening saga about the adventures of a Harvard professor and his influence over the Boomer generation.
The story begins in the early 1960s, as Fitz, a grad student in psychology at Harvard, wants to gain favor with Tim, his adviser. Tim is a bit of an iconoclast; he is experimenting with a drug called psilocybin. Tim begins holding weekly sessions in his Newton home, inviting Fitz and other acolytes to take the drug and see if and how it affects their behavior. The students are only too happy to comply.
Psilocybin does affect everyone’s behavior, including Fitz and his wife Joanie. They start to have the best sex ever. The weekend “sessions” at Tim’s become opportunities to get high and flirt with others’ spouses. Celebrities like trumpeter Maynard Ferguson begin showing up to add some oomph to the gatherings. Soon LSD has become the drug of choice, taken purportedly in the name of “science.”
The conservative Harvard psychology faculty is, however, having none of it and demands that the experiments cease. Fitz, Tim, Joanie and their families refuse, and flee to an oceanside hotel in Mexico, courtesy of a wealthy New York family that is footing the bill for everything. This proves to be an idyllic experience for Fitz, Joanie, and their young son Corey until the Mexican authorities catch wind of the acid-dropping and deport everyone back to America.
Fitz and Joanie glumly return to Boston—with no jobs, apartment or money. When all seems lost, divine providence once again intervenes: Tim’s wealthy backers have secured a 64-room house in Milbrook, New York for him and his followers. Everyone heads there—and an endless and dissolute party scene emerges, far from the original intent of scientific experimentation.
In case you haven’t guessed already, “Tim” is none other than Dr. Timothy Leary, the famous/infamous drug guru whose “Tune in, turn on and drop out” became the battlecry of 1960s counterculture. As a psychologist at Harvard, he really did encourage his students to use drugs, and he dropped acids with them. And Harvard did fire Leary in 1963 for, among other things, “failing to keep his classroom appointments.”
Thus much of what happens in this novel is true—with the addition of fictional characters like Fitz and his cohorts. This device is valuable because it helps you see the disillusionment with Leary through the eyes of someone who was hoping the drug would help him “see God.” As it turns out, constant drug use and free love may not be good for your marriage, family or academic career. Or finding God.
Boyle has always cast a cynical eye on charlatans, including Dr. Kellogg in “The Road to Wellness” whose unconventional therapies included sinusoids baths and “happy ending” massages. But he has a puckish sense of humor and a brilliant sense of plotting that is, ahem, addictive. For perhaps the best high of all—a reader’s high—“Outside Looking In” definitely is worth your consideration.