Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

The Inner Circle
T.C. Boyle
Viking (2004) 418 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin


T.C. Boyle is one of those writers that critics just love, as evidenced by his last novel, Drop City, being a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award. And I can see why they love him, and why he's become one of the five or so most "important" writers in America: he has most everything a contemporary American critic wants, from solid characterization to masterful narrative drive to sheer brilliance in his use of the language and the ability to turn out glimmering and memorable phrases, page after page, with a facility that seems effortless.

Which is probably because it is. Though much more prolific, T.C. Boyle is the most talented underachiever in American fiction since Truman Capote, maybe even since Fitzgerald. He covers for this through the sheer volume of his work, and so the works themselves, like The Inner Circle, become almost ridiculously tedious—but Boyle is almost deliberately maddening in that with this novel, as in his nine heralded others, he writes wonderfully, a quasar that looks like a comet, and achieves approximations of characters so masterfully that no one seems to notice he never penetrates to the Inner Truths of the matters he himself chooses to present. 

Is this, then, Boyle's Aesthetic? That we can see character but never deeper, as in "real life"? I think so, and I find it fallacious and a little smug. It's a Writing Workshop's wet dream, though, to be able to write like Boyle, and many other people's as well—and perhaps at the end of the day, Boyle is also the Primary Exemplar of the predicament of contemporary American fiction. He is probably the most talented writer of his generation. His work is also boring, pretentious, and strangely... empty. He's all technique. He's an atheist in the most full and etymological sense of the word. But yes, yes. What a technique it is, though. 



The Inner Circle is told as the first-person account of John Milk, the first of Dr. Alfred C. ("Prok") Kinsey's "inner circle" of sex researchers at Indiana University, as Milk presumably recites his memories into a tape recorder following Kinsey's death from heart failure in 1956. Beginning as a series of lectures for a course Milk attends as a virginal undergrad in the late 30s, the "project" of Kinsey & co.'s recording the sexual histories of thousands of subjects from all stratas of society provides, for a while, good fodder for Boyle's acute historic imagination: his details from the War Era are right-on. 

It also, of course, provides good material for Boyle's famously New Yorker/Priapic imagination, and for his considerable powers of evoking atmosphere and characterization. Argument: in terms of my aforementioned reservations about Boyle's writing, isn't it true that I'm missing the point entirely, that Boyle is really a "modern naturalist" of sorts? 

Answer: only if he had more a sense of humor than a pithy wit and let it go with his talents instead of trying to make more of things himself.

So the "inner circle" expands to include Milk's wife, Iris, of whom there is blessed little to be said because Boyle is a bit, uh, Lawrencian in his depiction of female characters (they're one-dimensional, but if their "emotions" are articulated, this rounds them out, or so the thinking goes). Yet I enjoyed the narrative and characterization of Kinsey, who emerges as more vital and real than was, say, Kinsey, a devise which explains the utter devotion Milk (but not Iris) extends to him. Kinsey's wife Clara (Mac) is also in the inner circle, but the only real members are male‹as the sometimes-likeable Milk observes‹and grows to include two other members: the cardboard cutout Corcoran and the afterthought, hugely-drawn Rutledge... but by that time, Boyle's "run out of steam." 

Now guess what's gonna happen. 


Here's what happens when Tom Boyle runs out of steam after 200 pages of relative inaction as he holds forth with his vivid descriptions and sparkling adjectival phrasing: he writes about Orgies. Did in Drop City, did in that other one, as well as, y'know, the other one, and does here. BIG time. One pictures Prok Kinsey as a dying Roman emperor and the poor novel as the empire, or, uh, something. 

The three men have sex with each other and other people while on the road collecting sex histories, an event so inevitable it's preposterous, presaged as it is by Milk's affair with Kinsey's wife with Kinsey's blessing, and his affair with Corcoran's wife Violet, which Kinsey sets up, but that of course is prefaced by Iris's affair with Corcoran, and, uh, the Inner Circle. Get it?

And of course flagrant sex and orgies and such place a lot of stress on serious interpersonal relationships‹you know, right?—and of course here we go with the rest of the novel. 

And hey, it's funny, for a few pages, and it rings true, for a few more. Yet well before the second part of the book begins, the thing has grown as tired and tedious and numbing as reading the actual Kinsey Reports. Isn't that part of the Point, and don't I get that?

Yes, I get that. But in a novel 150 pages too long, it is an act of unconscionable pretension to pull it, and plus, Boyle does try to further plots and characterizations after this point‹and the attempt falls flat. And the novel just keeps going, the inner circle spiraling, spiraling... just like you knew it would.



T.C. Boyle pisses me off. Not for being so boring and smug and pretentious: lesser writers from Harlan Ellison to Padgett Powell to myself have been all that. No, and not even for taking me for a ride in the backseat while he drives in circles, because I knew what I was in for.

No, Boyle gets my goat because I know how good he can be, and I also know that he knows how good he can be. And that this book (incidentally, one of his best) is good enough for him. And for an author who's now almost sixty, the disaffected airs of talented youth in a world of neo-existential angst are over. 

And notice I didn't say "genius." A genius is someone who both has a great book in them, and gets it out on paper. To date, Boyle has not done so, and at this point, one doubts he ever will.  Good writing?  Good? Yeah, he's good. 

And really, who the hell cares. 


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