Outside Looking In
Few living, serious novelists know more about magic mushrooms and LSD-25 than T. Coraghessan Boyle. The author of Drop City (2005) and a trove of other fiction even looks the part. But this old hippie has a Ph.D in British Literature and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa; and he’s written seventeen novels and published several story collections. In his new novel, Outside Looking In, his best work since Drop City, Boyle takes the fictional Fitzhugh Loney, his wife Joanie, and others through a wild trip into the world of therapeutic drug experiments in the early 1960s. It’s orchestrated by Timothy Leary, the charlatan shaman with a Ph.D in psychology and an advanced degree in libidinousness. With his usual irony, pity, and a sense of humor that ranges from slapstick to sardonic, Boyle portrays a time when the American beatnik age is withering and about to be replaced by the emerging-hippie culture, and jazz is giving way to rock ’n’ roll.
In the early 1960s, reefer was still considered a dangerous and evil drug that caused madness and possessed no redeeming medical uses, but psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) were legal for “investigational” use. Two decades earlier, in 1943, Albert Hofmann, a researcher at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, examined the efficacy and suitability of using psilocybin, synthesized from psychedelic mushrooms, for psychotherapy. Later, Hofmann experimented with LSD, and after twenty-five syntheses, he synthesized Delysid, D-lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD-25. Hofmann tested the drug on himself. The first time was an accident, the second an intentional ingestion of 250 micrograms. Boyle begins his novel with that Swiss prelude, followed, about twenty years later, by a story that takes place in Tim’s rented house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Hotel Catalina in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and winds up back east in a sixty-four-room mansion in Millbrook, New York.
Fitz and Joanie have been married thirteen years when Fitz, a graduate student at Harvard, first becomes associated with Tim Leary’s drug research team. Officially known as the Harvard Psilocybin Project, it’s expanded later to include LSD. Fitz had been working as the Beacon School District’s psychologist, but that job was going nowhere. So, when Tim invites Fitz, he’s thrilled to become part of the “inner circle” of drug research, group therapy, and Bacchanalia. Remember The Inner Circle, (or the German version Dr. Sex) (2004) Boyle’s novel about Alfred Kinsey and his reports on sexual behavior? Like Boyle’s fictional John Milk, one of Kinsey’s students who became Dr. Sex’s protégé, the eager Ph.D candidate Fitz is Leary’s protégé, at least one of them. Tim has plenty of true followers, sycophants, and hangers-on both inside and outside of Harvard. Fitz’s excitement to join the Leary group is tempered by his relatively conservative life style. He’s accustomed to taking the obligatory drink or two and schmoozing at cocktail parties. Fitz brings Joanie with him to sessions where they all fill out questionnaires, drink martinis, take pills, and seek enlightenment by expanding their minds “into regions they’d never even dreamed had existed,” Tim says. Neither Tim nor Fitz believe in God, but they call LSD “the sacrament,” because it was “the true path to enlightenment.” Tim even suggests that religions are concocted in the mind: “This is where religion came from, mystical cults, the Eleusinian mysteries—tripping, that’s all it is. Did you see the Light?” It’s amazing to what limits humans will go to find the ultimate reason for their existence and surprising how long they will continue their search within and without for meaning. In Fitz and Joanie’s case the limit is about three years, but Tim and his mind-expanders will seek transcendence for years beyond the scope of this novel or until the Feds catch up to Leary. It also happens that hallucinogens are great aphrodisiacs, so the “psychonauts” have lots of communal sex, too.
As you might imagine, Boyle’s story is a page-turner. It would take an absolute hack to write a dull a novel about sex and drugs. That’s not to slight Boyle who captures the period perfectly. He’s done his research on drug research, and he doesn’t fill his characters mouths with a lot of the slang of the day. Sure, there’s the occasional taste of the Beat “hepcat,” “squares,” and “downer,” for verisimilitude, but Boyle nearly apologizes for the vernacular by saying it’s “another descriptor he [Charlie] dug out of his Beat dictionary.”
As you might guess, the notoriety of The Project soon forces Tim to take his group to the Hotel Catalina in Zihuatanejo, which they call Freedom House. The trip, as well as much of the project is funded by Peggy Hitchcock, heir to the Mellon fortune. At the hotel, Leary and his followers do further research, expand their minds, and have plenty of sex. They go there for a couple summers until the Mexican government kicks them out for conducting business without a license. Upon their return to the states, Tim finds a 64-room mansion in Millbrook, New York, also provided by Hitchcock, and Fitz is back near his old high school teaching gig in the Beacon. Millbrook, “wasn’t far from Beacon, the very town they’d escaped from in the first place. The irony was stupendous. Or no, it wasn’t irony—it was karma. If ever there was karma involved in their lives then this was it.” At Millbrook, the cops harass the residents with minor driving infractions until Tim and a well-connected lawyer complain to the police chief. In the meantime, the partying, and experimenting continues. Joanie has sex with Tim, and quite a few others. Fitz, too, fucks everyone he can, but develops a crush on eighteen-year-old Lori on whom he seems to have been imprinted. They try to include family when it comes to taking drugs, but only the teens; eight year-old Bobby was too young and a microdose of less than a hundred micrograms, when the standard dose is 250, wouldn’t be the worth it. Why rush the kid?
The novel itself, like Drop City, is fraught with innate irony and humor. Do you think getting high on hallucinogens and having sex might possibly undermine the research about how the mind works and conceives a god? Tim even gives a hint early on about his motivations and his belief of himself as sort of god. “I’ve got to fuck every woman who comes into the house because they fixate on me—and the drug, of course. I’m the source of the drug—and the fuck too.” He grinned, rolled his eyes. “What we have to do in the name of science, huh, Fitz?” Leary’s world will eventually implode but long after Fitz and Joanie’s. In the meantime, “Fuck God. Let’s get high.”