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In T.C. Boyle’s Trippy New Novel, Characters Turn On, Tune In and Drop Lots of Acid

Category: Art & Culture,Books

[ How does a writer put a drug trip into words? ]

Most of the novel resides in the perspective of Fitzhugh Loney, one of Leary’s graduate students. (The middle third, roughly, shifts to the perspective of Fitz’s wife, Joanie.) After mild initial reluctance, Fitz and Joanie, young parents to a teenage son named Corey, eagerly cast off the burdens of conventional life to join Leary’s coterie. (Boyle is our great dramatist of the inner circle.) Fitz is ostensibly a researcher, but in a neat turn Boyle positions him as a subject of Leary’s grand experiment.

Though there are troubles and omens, Fitz and Joanie remain committed and enthusiastic trippers throughout the move to idyllic Mexico and then to rural Millbrook. Gradually, however, the experimental life becomes a slog. This novel is not, it must be said, full of surprises. As it turns out, constant drug use and free love may not be good for your marriage, family or academic career. If you’ve studied history — or if you’ve read other Boyle novels — you know well the arc of utopia.

The mansion in Millbrook, regarded by its inhabitants as a “spaceship” or “planet,” is a setting perfectly suited for Boyle’s methods. It’s the kind of microcosmic, nested world — dome, estate, island, sanitarium, commune — that he has utilized in previous novels. And in “Outside Looking In” there is yet another crucible inside the crucible — the human mind, rearranged by LSD. During one of Fitz’s trips, “worlds collided, glaciers calved, civilizations marched across the landscape erecting temples and tearing them down and starting all over again.” Meanwhile, Joanie on LSD feels “the texture of the carpet beneath her as if it were the portal to the center of the earth and she was dropping down the molten sides of it over and over again.”

This kind of travel writing is a challenge. It’s not easy to evoke the spiritual or therapeutic dimensions of a psychedelic drug, and ultimately the novel is not quite persuasive about the allure or potential of LSD as transformative ego suppressant. Michael Pollan’s recent book testifies to the salubrious power of LSD, and I was prepared to have my mind expanded by a fictional account of Leary and crew. But the drug use of Boyle’s psychonauts seems, almost immediately, decadent and dull. The trips are amazing, but they don’t lead anywhere. Fitz and Joanie begin in the spirit of exploration, but that gives way quickly to the spirit of escape, an endless and thoughtless party. They seem as doomed by counterculture as by culture. This is probably the point — “more and more, they seemed to be going outward rather than inward,” Fitz realizes late in the novel — but the inward journey never seems that vital or convincing. LSD does not radically alter Fitz’s sober perspective, at least not in an appealing way. Consequently, the novel’s trajectory is not pronounced, and the inevitable dissolution of the community is less compelling.

Stylistically, Boyle has always moved down the page in a skier’s crouch. He is a spirited downhill writer, capable of creating energy by virtue of his own pace and verve, and that is certainly the case here. This is not the best T. C. Boyle novel, but it’s without question a T. C. Boyle novel — kinetic, conceptual and keen. Moreover, when you take a step back from the book you can begin to appreciate that Boyle — much in the spirit of his quixotic and ambitious subjects — has now completed his own impressive public art project: a Mount Rushmore of American Fanatics.

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