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Tangled up in blue

The Inner Circle: A Novel, T.C. Boyle, Viking: 418 pp., $25.95

September 12, 2004|Gary Indiana | Gary Indiana is the author of several novels, including "Do Everything in the Dark," "Depraved Indifference" and "Resentment."

The 10th novel by T.C. Boyle, "The Inner Circle," is the story of John Milk, a fictional cohort in the otherwise nominally real team of researchers employed by Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s. The two volumes that issued from their work, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," transformed the way people everywhere thought about sex; in America, at least, this was not a universally welcome change.

"The Inner Circle" covers a great deal of literal and psychic geography, and its supporting cast is large. But it's essentially a chamber piece, as the title implies; the principals operate in a vast, uncharted territory yet seem to struggle with claustrophobia. Kinsey, larger than life, has almost infinite powers of persuasion, with skills of mimicry, empathy and adaptation that bewitch the back-alley ponce and 8-year-old interviewee alike.

Milk's account spans the entire period of Kinsey's study. It opens and closes on the day of Kinsey's funeral. A brief prologue strikes a rueful note: Something (probably many things) has not ended happily for the narrator. A sour foreboding is established, then we are whisked back to the campus of Indiana University where Milk, still an undergrad, signs up for Kinsey's marriage course, a seminar restricted to engaged couples. A coed he's briefly dated and failed to interest much comes along as his beard.

Milk does interest Kinsey for several reasons: aptitude, comeliness, a curiosity stronger than his standard, repressed upbringing. He becomes Kinsey's first assistant. Soon, Kinsey allows him to interview his study subjects and collect their sexual and physiological data. This first involves convincing the most readily available people -- other students, faculty members, janitors, locals -- to divulge their histories and anatomical particulars. Milk gradually sheds his ingrained timidity, aided by the period's growing faith in scientific method. As his bond with Kinsey tightens, Milk's professional trajectory is set.

Kinsey, here, is both charismatic leader and exemplary scientist, a protean figure whose monumental work demands the rigorous sacrifice of personal boundaries. Appraising Milk's own personal data, he notes a significant quantity of "H" behavior and, early in Milk's apprenticeship he and Kinsey start enjoying each other often, and thoroughly. Milk's considerable non-H urges are first quelled by Mac, Kinsey's wife, and only later, after a marriage promise has been extracted, by Iris, Milk's girlfriend.

The cultic milieu, as it's sometimes called, is suggested from the outset. Milk vets every decision he makes with Kinsey, who has an answer for everything. Implicitly, sex within the Kinsey menage functions as a tool of indoctrination, loosening the conventional bonds of love and marriage. Others join the research team. Kinsey's survey broadens to cover new and ever less conventional segments of the population.

As "The Inner Circle" moves along, the demands of Kinsey's project acquire a messianic imperiousness. Since the work demands a clinical approach to sexuality, members of the group and their spouses, sooner or later, for the good of science, end up having sex with each other. Field trips into the worlds of working girls, pimps, convicts, hustlers and what they call "deviants" of all kinds suggest the need for direct observation. Almost instantly, Boyle's intrepid band is holding its collective breath behind a curtain in a prostitute's hotel room. One method leads to another: still photography, movies. Meanwhile, relations within the inner circle (Kinsey, Mac, Milk, Iris, Purvis Corcoran, his wife Violet, then Rutledge and Mrs. Rutledge, finally the photographer, Aspinall) become densely tangled. Between Milk and Iris, spells of domestic peace regularly crumble into acrimony and bursts of retaliatory infidelity -- whatever that might be in context.

Mac, surrogate mother of the group, acts as a kind of speed bump when racing emotional conflicts threaten the collective equilibrium. Milk, the quintessential acolyte and true believer, swallows his largely unacknowledged resentment of Kinsey, while Iris, who holds her own against the Great Man at several surprising moments, settles scores with Milk by making it with his colleagues.

Kinsey's domination of Milk and Milk's battered relationship with Iris eventually seem to shove Kinsey's study into the margins. The novel becomes, for better or worse, the story of Milk's haplessness, Milk's disillusion, Milk's ruined marriage: "I came as close to losing control then as I ever have -- there were accusations on my lips, I know it, and I wanted to throw his words right back at him, but the best I could manage was just another reflection of my own inadequacy, a kind of bleat of agony that might have come from the lips of a child."

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