three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
By: 
T. C. Boyle
user_rating: 
0

A-InnerCircleJohn Milk, a naïve undergraduate at the University of Indiana in 1939, receives a lesson in relationships and sexuality when he starts working for Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, the controversial professor examining male and female sexual behavior. Kinsey’s findings, of course, were published as the best-selling Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). As part of the researcher’s inner circle, Milk travels the country interviewing Americans about their sexual habits, all the while serving as one of Kinsey’s personal experiments in human behavior. The bisexual Kinsey had affairs with his male researchers and encouraged wife-swapping, starting with his own. Will Milk’s marriage survive Kinsey’s influence? Was Kinsey a detached scientist or a sadist and voyeur? Boyle takes a fictional look at a mid-century American phenomenon.
Viking. 418 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0670033448

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s an occasionally erotic, but mostly sordid, tale, one that suits this author perfectly, as no writer charts the madness of brilliant minds better. … It has an emotional core that this novelist has never before achieved." Sam Shapiro

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Inner Circle is a stunning tour de force by one of our most gifted novelists. Readers will be alternatively intrigued, shocked and put off by the book, but few will put it down." David Milofsky

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Inner Circle is a novel in the style of The Aspern Papers and The Good Soldier, one of those books that offer pitiless accounts of self-delusion, moral corruption, betrayal and unconscious cruelty. … In the end, The Inner Circle leaves one reeling before so much spiritual destruction, all in the name of science." Michael Dirda

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"The scene where they measure—well, for the sake of decorum, I can’t say exactly what they measure—makes you wish you were in junior high so you could underline it and show your friends. … If there’s a problem with the book—and it’s hardly Boyle’s best work—it’s that the reader always knows where it’s going ..." Mike Littwin

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"… The Inner Circle unfortunately never achieves the ballast of his purely imagined fiction. [Kinsey] seems too much the traditional egomaniac, and Milk is too much of a pushover to really care about. As a result, it’s easy to read this novel with the same furtive speed that one does a dirty magazine: quickly and in search of the juicy bits." John Freeman

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Kinsey is curiously lacking the vividness that would make him as memorable and complex a character in fiction as he clearly was in life. … as a narrator [Milk] is as opaque, and as bland, as his name." A.O. Scott

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Reluctant either to satirize these people or to probe their deeper psychological drives, Mr. Boyle settles for a pallid combination of research and perfunctory fictionalizing. The result is a tepid historical novel about two unpalatable and one-dimensional characters (a user and a dupe)—a novel that makes little use of the author’s bravura gift for language or his instinctive storytelling talents." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Like his 1993 novel, The Road to Wellville, which focused on Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of cornflakes, Boyle once again fictionalizes a historical figure. This time, he tackles the egomaniacal attitude and odd proclivities of Kinsey, who studied the sexual habits of WWII-era Americans. In voyeuristic detail, Boyle paints Kinsey as a flawed zealot whose powers of persuasion compel those around him to engage in destructive behavior. There’s plenty of sex to keep things interesting, but the characters themselves don’t measure up. Most critics agree Inner Circle is not his best novel, but only The New York Times accuses Boyle of predictability, conflated prose, and narrative laziness. (Another option would be to see Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson.)

Also by the Author

Drop City | T.C. Boyle (2003): 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2003. In his ninth novel, Boyle takes a somber look at a 70s-era California commune that packs up and heads north to Alaska.