Move Toward the Light
Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
My late father held four advanced degrees. Although he had great interest in the arts, philosophy, and theology, his ultimate profession was neurochemistry—brain science.
I knew that from early on, of course. But not until I was an adult did I learn that around the time I was born he was working on a large study at the University of Chicago, the focus of which was the effects on the brain of the hallucinogenic compound lysergic acid diethylamide —a.k.a. LSD.
My thoughts returned to this bit of trivia as I read the newest novel from the prolific American author T.C. Boyle. Boyle is a master storyteller, distinguished by a long career spent entirely on writing fiction—with an astonishing seventeen novels and eleven short story collections to his name. His latest novel is called Outside Looking In, and it concerns the nascent days of the LSD craze in this country during the 1960s. This in turn helped generate an entire counter-cultural wave of behaviors and activism of which Boyle has written compellingly before.
As with some of his previous novels—such as The Inner Circle (2004), about the controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, or The Road to Wellville (1993), which concerns John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes—Outside Looking In focuses on one of those true-life, trend-setting figures and the people he sucks into his orbit. Some readers may remember Dr. Timothy Leary, a pioneer of LSD research in the 1960s who established a notorious group at Harvard University called the Harvard Psilocybin Project (psilocybin is a natural hallucinogen found in certain mushrooms).
Boyle’s story follows invented characters, a Ph.D. candidate named Fitzhugh Loney and his wife Joanie, as they fall deeper and deeper under Leary’s influence while “Fitz” attempts to complete his coursework. At the outset, the project involves Saturday night “sessions” in 1962 at Leary’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here the Loneys and others ingest low doses of LSD, interact with other members of Leary’s “inner circle,” and record their reactions in questionnaires and essays. In the early stages, the experimentation has at least some semblance of scientific legitimacy.
In Boyle’s work, however, the human animal is always its own worst enemy. It isn’t long before Leary’s “research” begins to run afoul of the powers that be at Harvard. For a brief summer interval, the sojourners head south to a rented hotel in Zihautanejo, Mexico, where the parameters of the project expand of their own accord to include communal living and “free love.”
Then, in 1963, a wealthy acolyte of Leary’s donates a large manse in Millbrook, upstate New York. The group migrates there and the tripping continues, with the size of the gaggle increasing in proportion to diminishing controls.
Rules are dispensed with, rivalries form, and borders are crossed that can’t be re-crossed as the drama unfolds.
T.C. Boyle has been adept at storytelling for so long that a reader comes to take his general expertise as a given. Individual sentences sparkle in the difficult charge of communicating hallucinogenic drug experience to a reader: “the days uncoupled from the rotation of the earth,” “the [drug] was flaying the flesh from his bones.” Leary is portrayed as a suave, magnetic figure with “charisma to burn” who exudes “the shining aura of the crusader with every breath.”
What did all this experimentation and interest in LSD really add up to in the end? And what does that say about humanity? These are the questions that Boyle is really interested in, and why this novel is worth a reader’s time and consideration.
Ironically, while Boyle himself cannot find a basis for belief in salvation or a spiritual life beyond this earthly one, Outside Looking In is one of his most penetrating explorations yet into ultimate questions. Many LSD researchers and users were drawn to the drug’s quality as an “entheogen,” a substance that aids chemically in “generating the divine from within.” It doesn’t seem like an accident that partaking of LSD is referred to in this book as “taking the sacrament.”
Even beyond that, Boyle’s commitment to the ultimate responsibility of an artist is worthy of admiration. He does a remarkable job—regularly—of posing intriguing and maybe even essential inquiries, then concocting fictional scenarios in which elusive answers may or may not reveal themselves. The point of this striking novel is to encourage a reader to seek the light in the most satisfying way—that is to say, on one’s own.
Artwork by RipRoaringReverend “LSD” (U.S.)
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.