The Inner Circle, a novel by T.C. Boyle. Penguin. 432 pages.
T.C. Boyle has a gift for bringing to life historical figures in his fiction. He did it to John Harvey Kellogg in his comedic novel The Road to Wellville, made into a movie by the same name, and he does it more movingly in The Inner Circle, also turned into a film, about Alfred Kinsey, whose sex research at Indiana University transformed scientific inquiry and helped change Americans’ sexual knowledge and attitudes.
Boyle captures key events, factual content, and setting. More importantly, and yet stemming in large part from real exterior details—the weather, Kinsey’s dressing and bathing habits, the town’s bars and streets—the emotional texture of Kinsey’s world felt right. And it is probably the latter reason that some stories are more doable in fiction: it’s difficult to find a narrator open enough and patient enough and trustworthy enough to limn his and others’ inner lives to the extent that we—voyeuristically, yes—desire. In The Inner Circle readers experience how it felt to be pinned like an insect by Kinsey’s blue eyes, how he smelled in an embrace.
The senior members of Kinsey’s team depicted in The Inner Circle bear some resemblance to actual men, but Boyle appears to have created his narrator from whole cloth. With a name as bland, neutral, and wholesome as his Hoosier hometown, John Milk is the perfect acolyte to tell us his and Kinsey’s tale, which he dictates as a memoir into a tape recorder. Kinsey is literally the father he didn’t have, and Milk swallows Kinsey’s scientific view of sex completely. Boyle shows Milk, as an undergraduate English major, encounter Kinsey’s magnetic pull in the professor’s popular and controversial “marriage” class. Soon he’s working side-by-side with the distinguished zoologist, who shifts his focus from gall wasps to human sexuality and brilliantly hones a questionnaire for taking individual sexual histories. The Inner Circle proceeds chronologically, as Kinsey’s work and office grow to meet his ambition. The freakishly energetic researcher works his staff like dogs and is utterly dominating. Milk forgives all because he knows beyond doubt that the courageous Kinsey is one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century.
But Milk’s wife, Iris—as her name implies—sees: she sees the bigger picture. Though Kinsey is clearly a genius, Iris resists, judges him a monster, rapacious and manipulative and ethically blinkered. In his rage to sever sex from love, from monogamy, from marriage, and especially from religion—to see it purely as a biological necessity and a physical outlet—Kinsey dishonors his role as a mentor. Iris, a virgin when she married Milk, learns her husband has regular sex with Kinsey and that he lost his heterosexual virginity to Kinsey’s wife. In spite, but also acting on genuine attraction in the Kinsey group’s spirit, she has an affair. Kinsey approves, but neither she nor Milk can live with her infidelity. Later, when Milk excitedly packs for a long trip with Kinsey to take the history of a sexual athlete, Iris points out in cold fury that the man is not just an epic satyr but also a pedophile, a serial child rapist. These events, and the book’s dramatic clash among Milk, Iris, and Kinsey at a mate-swapping party Kinsey arranges for his bewitched staff, reflect information about Kinsey that has filtered out from the remnants of the inner circle in the past decade.
Somehow he escaped personal scandal in his lifetime, an era of unbelievable sexual repression, ignorance, and censorship. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male made him rich and famous with its publication in 1948. Five years later, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female made him infamous and finished off his overworked body. He died in 1956 at the age of 62. Americans just couldn’t accept that women were as sexual as men, and they were outraged to be informed differently; also, a growing cadre of critics and enemies attacked Kinsey’s methodology and his nonjudgmental, informational stance toward all sexual expression (his research with active pedophiles would be illegal today). The Inner Circle illuminates the layers of tragedy in the Kinsey story.
Boyle makes us care about his characters, or at least gets us interested in them, which gives his book great narrative drive. I inhaled this novel, losing myself in it to a degree rare in adulthood. Its depth causes it to linger in the mind: Kinsey was a freak of nature and a great scientist. But his certainty (flowing from his own history and sexual needs as much as from his study of zoology) that human sexual restraint is purely negative and conditioned, instead of also being part of our evolutionary and social gestalt, limited his scientific grasp of our species. His critics were largely low and mean, but something indeed was wrong, at least according to the book’s moral touchstone, the all-seeing Iris, she whose name in Greek mythology describes a messenger between the gods and humans, she the wife of Kinsey’s most focused pupil.