Tuesday, November 1, 2011

T.C. Boyle on the Natural-Born Wife Swappers of "The Inner Circle"

(T.C. Boyle)

(This interview originally ran in the Westchester Journal News in October 2004)

By Dylan Foley

“I think of my parents,” says T.C. Boyle as he tapped the cover of his new novel “The Inner Circle.” The cover is an archival photo of a 1940s couple, his parents’ age, making out in a car “You can never imagine our parents having sex, but to all appearances to the contrary, they did have sex.”

Boyle’s new novel as an addictive look at Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, the man who started the American sexual revolution. Plunging into the sexual repression of the United States in the 1940s,
the nights are very dark and the winters are cold in Indiana where Kinsey and his research assistants gathered sexual research on American men and women. They were not only tabulators but sexual participants. Under Kinsey’s control, the men slept with him, swapped wives and were open to all kinds of sexual encounters.

In 1948, Kinsey’s groundbreaking book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” was published. Kinsey blew the doors off American closets and hung our sexual laundry out to dry, detailing sexual desires, adultery, homosexuality and many things American would not admit that they did in private.

The 55-year-old Boyle sat in the lush Royalton Hotel in New York City. With his swept-up red pompadour and his 1950s retro black-and-white jacket, he is a hard writer to miss. A self-described “punk” when he was a kid in upstate New York, he still hasn’t lost the sharp attitude.

It was his experience with the 1970s in his last novel that brought Boyle to Kinsey. “I had just written ‘Drop City,’ where I went back to the concept of free love,” said Boyle. “Take all the barriers down and what does that mean? What do you put in their place?

“I felt it would be very natural to go back another 30 years and examine where the nation was coming from,” he said. “Further, since Kinsey was a biologist and an atheist, I wondered about the biological side of our nature versus the emotional or spiritual side.”

Boyle said that his street tough background made him wary of authority figures like Kinsey. “People who are so cocksure, and who are going to tell you the authoritative line and brook no dissent always worry me,” he said. “I grew up in America with a bunch of punks just like me, who always said, ‘Screw you. Get off my back. This is my world. I am going to do it the way I want.’ It could be a con man, or someone as great as Kinsey. I wondered what it would be like to be under their thumbs.”

The man under Kinsey’s thumbs is the narrator, the virginal researcher John Milk, whose observations bring Kinsey alive as a brilliant and highly manipulative sexologist with the nickname “Prok.” All energies are devoted to gathering sexual data, and the quest to accumulate 100,000 sexual histories around America. And Prok’s sexual appetite and his desire to destroy sexual boundaries also wreak havoc on his men and their families.

To bring Kinsey alive through Milk’s eyes, Boyle found himself using the first person. “I write many ‘I’ narratives in my short stories,” said Boyle. “In the novels, usually I use the third person because it enables me to do more, to enter character’s minds. I wanted to be more confined in this book, for dramatic purposes.” The reader is trapped in Milk’s mind. We know his response to his wife’s seduction by a fellow researcher, but we don’t know his wife’s motivations.

“The way the book works for me is each reader says, ‘No, wait a minute, that is going to far,’” said Boyle. “There is an ironic distance that the reader can obtain from this ‘I’ narrator because he’s not totally reliable. This is Milk’s confession, his protestation that everything was really okay. We see that perhaps it wasn’t okay. This book was a joy to do through Milk’s eyes, his vocabulary and intellect.”

In his 1994 bestselling novel “The Road to Wellville,” Boyle used over-the-top humor to detail Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s health movement. The humor around Kinsey’s sexual revolution is much darker and subtle. “I could have gone overboard with Kinsey, making penis jokes, but the darkness just evolved,” he said. “”Everything I write is pretty dark, for we laugh now, but soon we will be dead.”

Some of this fatalism may come from Boyle’s self-destructive youth in Peekskill. At 21, he picked up a heroin habit, which he later kicked with barbiturates. The resulting short story, “The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust,” pretty much helped launch Boyle’s stellar writing career. The story helped gain him admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He wound up teaching at the University of Southern California.

Boyle fictionalized the men in Kinsey’s circle. “I invented characters to surround Kinsey, to see what it might be like to be a sexologist, and how this might affect other sexual partners, like a wife, and whether love is chemical or spiritual,” he said. “All of those factors you can explore if you make a fiction around a real phenomena--a guy like Kinsey who opened up the country to sex and became a sensation.”

And Boyle also reinvented Kinsey. “Making Kinsey walk and talk, setting him in a drama makes him mine,” said Boyle. “He’s no longer a figure out of history for me. He’s my character, who I invented, as I invented Dr. Kellogg.”

After living with Prok for the nine months it took to research and write the book, Boyle is still enthralled with the sexologist. “Kinsey’s manipulative. He can use a term like ‘sex shy’ to bully his inner circle,” he said. “If they don’t want to do something sexual, he’d say, ‘You are going against the project, which is to illuminate sexuality for everyone.’ He wouldn’t admit this to the public.

“To the public, he is a scientist reporting fact,” said Boyle. “He is really a reformer, a progressive, who wanted people to have sex in any combination, because he thought sex was good. Kinsey was the pioneer. He was the first, that led to everybody else. He helped normalize sexual relations. He believed that there shouldn’t be legal or moral restraints on what adults do.”

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


Anonymous said...

Dylan, I'm a literature student from Spain. After some research on "The Inner Circle" I stumbled upon your post, which I found fantastic.
I was wondering, is there a possibility to read it in its entirety in the journal where it was published? I've browsed for half an hour through their webpage and either I'm a dummy or they don't have a archive section...


Dylan Foley said...

Dear Cristina,

Alas, my article was only about 1,000 words. If you need to read more about TC Boyle, there are two great resources--tcboyle.com (done by his children) and tcboyle.net.

Thanks for the compliment on my article and good luck with your research. Please feel free to spread the word on my blog "Dylan Foley's Writer Interview Forum."

Take care.