Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle
Viking. $25.95. 418 pages.

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas, uneducated infra- human anthropoids and fully-evolved humans of all educational levels impelled by end organs, vasomotor reflexes, pulse rates, blood pressure, breathing rates and other physiologic phenomena, do it. Fall in love, that is.

Or not. As more a scientist than a sentimentalist, the groundbreaking sex researcher and reformer Alfred Kinsey, in his matter-of-fact, unromantically mechanistic version of the birds and the bees, was out for bigger, if not better, game. T. C. Boyle chronicles, captivatingly, in his newest novel of sparkling prose, cohesive style and history fueled fiction. "The Inner Circle" joins the ranks of "Water Music," an account of the late 18th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, and "The Road to Wellville," based on cornflake impresario John Harvey Kellogg.

Now, quick on the heels of last year's acclaimed "Drop City," Boyle takes us back to the late 1940s in an observation of Kinsey and his staff finding yet another season, another reason, for remaking whoopie into taxonomic calculations of correlations, coefficients, medians and standard deviations from the mean, quantifying the beast with two backs by way of charts and graphs.

Quite a change for an obscure entomologist and Indiana University professor of zoology who had enjoyed nothing better than traveling cross-country collecting and studying gall wasps. Kinsey started pulling double duty in insects and sex after undertaking to teach a course on marriage. Increasingly, he responded to student inquiries about relationship matters; the seeds were sown for his active involvement in sex education, and the founding in, 1947, of the Institute for Sex Research. Though able for a while to toil in both a longtime labor of love and in his new labor in and of love and sex, the hardworking biologist reluctantly relinquished his entomology studies for analysis of the "human animal."

With the bug business behind him, Kinsey gave full attention to addressing the dearth of published sex information by bringing into print the Kinsey Reports, culled from interviews with some 18,000 men and women. "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953) provoked denunciations from religious, educational, political and even some scientific corners. Such accusations as "corrupter of morals," "pseudoscientific snoop," "libeler of womankind" and "communist" (the all-purpose, no-muss no-fuss standby for the times) damned Kinsey at the same time he was being blessed with best-seller-dom.

Trailing the clouds of glory and ignominy would be the cacophony of critics, scholars, biographers and certain disingenuous detractors and hacks offering up their particular brand of assessment, from acerbic crucifixions or hagiographic huzzahs. Enough time has passed since Kinsey's death in 1956 that conflicting schools of thought, ranging from the sugarcoated to credible to near- hysterical, have gone through the challenges of corrective counteractions and revisionist history. Such issues as Kinsey's bisexuality and Svengali-like manipulation, have been joined by charges of pedophilia, workplace voyeurism and exhibitionism, and allegations of a flawed statistical and ethical approach.

It is against this varyingly success-filled and problem-plagued setting that Boyle focuses his piercing, imaginative powers to reconstruct the inner workings of the inner circle of the Kinsey research team. With the exception of Kinsey and his wife Clara, nicknamed Mac, the characters and situations are invented (though, in a names-have-been-changed manner, several members of the team closely resemble real-life staff members). Boyle cites his indebtedness to a variety of differing biographers, taking a warts- and-all middle-ground tack in which incidents address or allude to - - or serve to refute -- published reports and speculations, including the more sensationalistic ones.

Kinsey's first assistant and soon-to-be disciple is John Milk, a naive and "sex shy" English major hired on as part-time help, but soon enmeshed in the escalating trouble as he succumbs to Kinsey's charisma: " ... you felt that he really and truly sympathized, that when your heart was breaking, so was his." Soon enough, Milk accepts Kinsey's offer to become an interviewer, aiding in the collecting of data and case histories, a promotion that Milk considers fate, a "moment that seems to present itself as offering up a choice but is in actuality a confluence of circumstances that pins you to a course of action as decisively as [Kinsey] pins his Cynipids to the mounting board."

Ah, empathy and destiny. No wonder Milk gives in willingly to the attentions of Prok (Kinsey's nickname -- oddly and too often, think "Hef"), and before long surrenders to Prok's homosexual advances (OK, think "gay Hef"). So much for professional distance and employee orientation.

Though Prok is happily married with children, and Milk is engaged and eventually married with children, both would engage in academics- gone-wild antics throughout their association, especially when they hit the road to visit other colleges, prisons and the seamier parts of various towns for speaking engagements and interviewing sessions. It's an equal opportunity available to, and willingly acceded to by, each of the few other happily married members of the inner circle as they come on board to work for the ever-demanding Kinsey.

Furthermore, a no-strings downward spiral of group sex, filmed sex and live sex performances -- a benefits package of perverse perks, all supposedly in the name of research -- becomes more and more prevalent and decadent during the busy and stressful countdown to the publication dates of the Kinsey Reports.

The situation turns uglier for Milk, intensifying with the snowballing regrets he feels for Kinsey's control over his life, not only sexually (intercourse with Prok becomes less consensual yet he always acquiesces) but in other matters as well, such as financially, in his marriage and even in choice of a new home. When Milk tries to "extricate myself from the sheaf of lies I'd constructed around me," which includes his affair with Kinsey's wife and another co-worker's wife -- both encouraged by Prok -- it has chillingly emotional and soul-searching repercussions for what should have been and what should always be uppermost in mind and heart: his bond with his wife, Iris, who is often at odds with Prok. As Milk perhaps too late realizes, Iris, upon becoming a true member of the inner circle, "is central to all this, to Prok's story ... everything that's happened since concerns her as much as it does anyone else."

It is in this relationship that "Inner Circle" draws its ultimate and overarching strength as a deeply affecting love story, countervailing the overly clinical standpoint of Kinsey that "they've had three thousand years to go on about love, now give science a chance." Iris is often the lone voice of reason and conscience, as when she argues that perhaps Kinsey and Milk had a higher obligation to turn in a child molester, rather than just routinely record his sex history. She is just as admirable for her determination: In one of the book's most memorable and funniest scenes, Iris willfully gives birth to the couple's son just a few minutes before midnight in an effort to upset her husband's rather pathetic and sycophantic eagerness to have John Jr. share a birthday with Kinsey.

Moreover, Iris' spirit of independence sets forth a necessary corrective. As Milk tells it, his wife "Formed her own opinions. And while I didn't necessarily recognize it at the time, so caught up was I in the project and what we'd set out to accomplish, I would say that her independence grew over the years until it was almost antithetical -- a rebellion, very nearly a rebellion -- against what we believed in."
For in the end and after all, "love is all there is."
Excerpt from The Inner Circle

She was silent. I listened to the blitzkrieg of static over the line and she might have been a thousand miles away instead of just across the quad.
"Listen, Iris," I said, "you're going to have to try to overcome these antiquated notions about, well, relations between consenting adults -- this is the modern age and we're scientists, or we mean to be, and all this superstition and fear and blame and finger- pointing is holding us back, as a society, I mean. Can't you see that?"
Her voice came back at me as if she hadn't heard what I was saying at all, a small voice, quavering around the edges: "And Prok?"
"What about him?" I said.
"You and Prok?"
I was in a phone booth, bathed in yellow light. It was cold. The wind rattled the door, seeped through the cracks where the hinges folded inward. I was shivering, I'm sure, but this was my wife, this was Iris, and I had to get everything out in the open, had to be straightforward and honest from here on out or we were doomed, I could see that now. "Yes," I said.
What came next was a surprise. She didn't throw it back at me, didn't shout "How could you?" or demand to know the occasions and the number of times or ask me if I loved him or he me or where she and Mac fit into all this, and she didn't use any of those hateful epithets people are so quick to make use of, invert, tribad, fag. She just said, "I see."
What did I feel? Shame? A little. Relief? Yes, certainly, but it was as tenuous as the connection that fed our voices through the superstructure of the night. "I love you," I said. "You, and nobody else. The rest is all -- "
"A bodily function?"


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