In the ten novels that he wrote prior to The Inner Circle, T. Coraghessan Boyle regularly juxtaposes the timeless to the temple. His characters are invariably products οf their era, their behavior shaped by the spirit οf the age and the circumstances οf the historical moment. At the same time, they usually express instinctive urges and hunger that are comically contradictory to the values people οf their class and culture are expected to embrace. In several οf his novels, Boyle has used an actual historical personality to crystallize this dichotomy: the explorer Mungo Park in Water Music (1981), entrepreneur and hygiene fanatic John Harvey Kellog in The Road to Wellville (1993), and Stanley McCormack, deranged heir οf the McCormack reaper business empire, in Riven Rock (1998). Boyle places these characters at the center οf their stories and reflects their fallibility in the eccentric orbits οf imagined friends and associates who revolve about them, responding to (and often emulating) their influence (Whitfield 100-101).
The historical celebrity οf The Inner Circle is Alfred C. Kinsey, author οf the infamous Kinsey Report (actually two books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1948 and 1953, respectively) which shocked the American public with its analyses οf sexual behaviors among ordinary men and women that, by the standards οf the day, were judged kinky and even immoral. It should not have been shocking, though, because the American public was the source οf Kinsey’s data.
Kinsey’s research, which revealed surprisingly high statistics for masturbation, premarital sex, oral sex, homosexual flings, incest, bestiality, and other acts usually considered sexually deviant, came from rigorous interviews, conducted over nearly a decade, οf more than ten thousand Americans, who represented a broad cross-section οf the national population in terms οf age, race, education, geographic distribution, and socioeconomic status. By exposing how widespread unorthodox sexual practices were, Kinsey lowered the benchmark for what constituted “normal” sexuality, and in effect, said there was no such thing as an “abnormal” sexual act. Nevertheless, it was hard (if not impossible) for a culture that took great pride in its values and moral standards to accept, as narrator John Milk puts it, that “man was pansexual, and it was only convention—law, custom, the church—that kept him from expressing himself with any partner that came along, οf whatever sex or species.”
Milk would know, as the story οf his personal relationship with Kinsey and his professional career as one οf Kinsey’s sex researchers reads like a case history straight out οf the report. The Inner Circle, which is narrated in hindsight from the day οf Kinsey’s funeral in 1956, is Milk’s memoir οf nearly two decades in which Kinsey served as his mentor, confidant, business partner, scientific colleague, father figure, and occasional sexual partner. Biographies οf Kinsey has reported that his own sexual proclivities were as polymorphous and indiscriminate as his research suggested many Americans secretly were. (Larson 29-34)
In Boyle’s novel, Kinsey—or “Prok” (for Professor Kinsey), as he is generally called—virtually demands pansexuality οf his subordinates as a sign οf their openmindedness and objectivity toward the work they are doing for him. The promiscuity and profligacy that Prok advocates (purely in the interest οf science) creates tension throughout the novel for Milk, first as he attempts to throw off shackles οf the Puritanism that has conditioned his attitudes toward “normal” sexuality, and eventually as he seeks fulfillment in a relationship that will transcend the pleasure principle.
The novel opens in 1939 with Milk, an undergraduate English major at Indiana University, being recruited by a beautiful but icy coed to playact as her fiancé so that they can attend Kinsey’s class on “Marriage and the Family.” (Springen 50-55) Consistent with the mores οf the day, sex is a topic that is not supposed to be discussed outside marriage, so only married (or soon-to-be-married) students are allowed to take the class.
The subterfuges students such as Milk used to attend are evidence οf the shame and embarrassment about sex that Kinsey’s study eventually helped sweep away. Milk, as the symbolism οf his name suggests, is an innocent who has yet to experience sex, although he admits to carnal urges. The provocative images in Kinsey’s slide shows and the dispassionate candor with which Kinsey discusses the subject resonate with him and convince him to give the professor a personal sexual history that Kinsey asks students for at the class’s conclusion. Recognizing a closet sexual libertarian, Kinsey recruits Milk as a staff sex researcher, the first member οf his inner circle (Kirkus Reviews, 504).
As depicted by Boyle, Kinsey is the archetypal academic: charismatic, strong-willed in his relationships with his students and subordinates, and immersed in his research to cold, clinical extremes. That research is about sex, and what for other scholars might simply be a matter οf taking one’s work home becomes an orgy οf promiscuity when Milk visits the Kinsey home. In short order, Prok initiates Milk into his first homosexual experience, and Prok’s wife, Mac, with Prok’s approval and complicity, into his first heterosexual coupling. Prok and Mac have what might conservatively be called an open marriage, an arrangement conducive to Prok’s field οf study and his scientific attitude toward it. Milk does his best to emulate Prok’s scientific detachment toward sex, but he can never completely shake the awareness that on occasions when he visits, he is having sex with surrogate father and mother figures and grappling with the Freudian issues (which Prok, who considers Sigmund Freud the arch-nemesis, dismisses) that this raises (New York Times, 8).
Sex is one οf those instinctive drives that irresistibly overwhelms the higher intellectual faculties οf characters throughout Boyle’s fiction. The Road to Wellville, Riven Rock, East Is East (1990), and Drop City (2003) offers abundant examples οf how sex serves as both a commodity and currency, the pursuit οf which takes characters down avenues they know will lead to trouble but find they cannot resist. Initially, Milk revels in his role as a sexual libertine and his newfound outlet for expression. He is able to justify his pursuit οf gratification on the grounds that he is only doing what comes naturally and that to suppress his urges would be hypocritical and introduce a bias that could adversely impact his work taking the sexual histories οf Kinsey’s candidates.
When Iris McAuliffe, the younger sister οf a childhood friend who is also attending the university, enters his life, Milk is even able to break down her resistance to sex by telling her how statistics show that premarital sex actually improves the likelihood οf a marriage’s success. (Iris deftly turns this rationalization back on Milk, asking if their first sexual liaison then constitutes a marriage proposal, and thereby showing that even a liberated approach to sex is not without consequences.)
The first sign that Milk can only follow Kinsey’s ideology so far occurs when he winds up on the receiving end οf this sort οf equivocation. Shortly after their marriage, Iris has a steamy tryst with Purvis Corcoran, the second researcher hired by Kinsey, and justifies it to her husband on the same grounds that he has used to justify his dalliances with Mac and Kinsey. Kinsey intervenes to stop the affair from progressing, insisting that his employees appear above reproach in their marriages and relations with one another because they are being scrutinized by guardians οf public decency who will gladly pull the plug on their research grants if they suspect immoral behavior. Kinsey protects his interests but, in doing so, shows the fundamental hypocrisy οf his attitudes. Milk wrestles for the rest οf the novel with feelings οf jealousy, possessiveness, and betrayal, which he realizes, ultimately, are imperfect expressions—but expressions nonetheless—οf love for his wife.
As John and Iris become more and more domesticated—starting a family, buying a house, settling down into marital routines—the work for Kinsey becomes less and less appealing. John is repeatedly on the road, and his absences from home begin to strain his marriage. What is more, the sex research work comes to seem increasingly prurient. While taking the sexual histories οf prostitutes and pimps, John, Purvis, and Prok arrange to secretly observe a call girl servicing her tricks—a tawdry act οf voyeurism. Visits to the Kinsey household frequently end up in sexual groupings that seem less an expression οf sexual liberation than mandatory enforcement οf promiscuity to keep up appearances.
Kinsey, who clearly understands the power οf sexual drives, begins manipulating Milk and other associates οf the inner circle through subtle forms οf sexual blackmail and domination. Questions οf moral and civic obligation begin to trouble Milk when some οf the subjects he interviews show a dangerous sexual degeneracy. When Kinsey hires a cameraman to help record the sexual activities οf some subjects, the scenes play out as little more than pornographic filmmaking. John’s dissatisfaction and growing discomfort with his work climax in a confrontation with Kinsey that carries all the weight οf a primal Freudian showdown between father and son and suggests that Freud (and what he stands for) has finally trounced Prok.
When the Kinsey Report was published, it was roundly denounced by critics for its mechanistic view οf sexuality and its divorce οf love and emotional commitment from the act οf sex. The Inner Circle is Boyle’s response to Kinsey’s clinically detached look at sex as little more than a fundamental biological imperative that could be measured and calibrated. Without disputing Kinsey’s findings, Boyle suggests that Kinsey’s study may have captured only a dimension, and not the totality, οf humans as sexual beings. Although focused on Kinsey and members οf the inner circle, the novel is really the story οf John Milk and his evolution from an intellectual naïf infatuated with a father surrogate to an independent spirit able to think and make judgments on his own. (West 40-42) The means by which he does so is a romantic love relationship with his wife, itself an evolution beyond the ideas that Kinsey promotes.
In most οf Boyle’s novels, instinct triumphs over greater virtues and shows that humans have, at heart, not progressed far beyond the primitive. His last novel, Drop City, however, ended with a burgeoning love relationship that enhanced the prospects for survival in a modern Darwinian landscape. The Inner Circle builds on the same idea: that humans are more than the sum οf their primal urges, even if they are forever in danger οf backsliding into them.
Much οf this is dizzyingly readable, and Boyle is a past master at transforming scrupulously researched material into crisply funny scenes. We do get to meet several blithely forthcoming female interviewees and Milk’s affable bisexual colleague Purvis Corcoran–as well as eavesdrop on sessions with overeager spouses, curious moppets, and a sexagenarian virtuoso (“The extreme case that gives the lie to the norm”), the last οf which allows Boyle to use the line “Dr. Kinsey, I presume?” But it all feels simultaneously labored and underplotted. Reactionary disapproval οf Kinsey’s pioneering work rears its head periodically, and there’s little real development otherwise οf Boyle’s arresting premise. (Raben 61-62) The best things here are the searching, genuinely complex characterizations οf its two protagonists: Prok the grand mal obsessive, as much innovative genius as he is self-indulgent thrill-seeker; and John Milk and ingenuous tabula rasa whose innate humanity keeps him from fully committing to the clinical quantification οf how “the human-animal” lives and loves.
As the research expands and The Inner Circle grows to include Corcoran and Rutledge, Milk is faced with situations that continually threaten his marriage to beautiful young Iris, whom he truly loves. As part οf the “research,” he is expected to engage in extramarital sex acts with both men and women on the basis that it has nothing to do with love. This novel considers the conflict between our animal instincts and our human emotions, raising questions about the relationships among sex, marriage, love, and jealousy, and is at once titillating and maddening.
Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 11 (2004): 504.
Larson, Christina., The Joy οf Sexology. Washington Monthly, 2004, Vol. 36 Issue 12, pp.29-34
Raben, Dale., The Inner Circle (Book). Library Journal, 7/15/2004, Vol. 129 Issue 12, pp. 61-62
Springen, Karen; Pierce, Ellise; Raymond, Joan; Kalb, Claudia., Let’s Talk About Sex. Newsweek (Atlantic Edition), 11/8/2004, Vol. 144 Issue 19, pp. 50-55
The New York Times Book Review 154 (2004): 8.
West, Suzanne L.; Vinikoor, Lisa C.; Zolnoun, Denniz., A Systematic Review οf the Literature on Female Sexual Dysfunction Prevalence and Predictors. Annual Review οf Sex Research, 2004, Vol. 15, p40-42
Whitfield, Pam., Entering Kinsey’s “Inner Circle”. Sexuality & Culture, 2006, Vol. 10 Issue 1, pp. 103-106