Alfred Kinsey and John Harvey Kellogg seem like strange bedfellows—one's a pioneering sex researcher, the other a forbidding proponent of clean living—but in T.C. Boyle's mind, they're weirdly conflated. Like Kellogg in Boyle's The Road To Wellville, the Kinsey of Boyle's vibrant new novel The Inner Circle possesses the mad enthusiasm of a modern-day prophet, and he surrounds himself with disciples who unquestioningly carry out his vision, even when it leads them personally astray. While Kinsey would have considered Kellogg's anti-scientific zealotry beneath contempt, the two were equally dogmatic about sexual health, and they embraced opposite extremes of behavior that proved problematic in practice. Like Drop City, Boyle's superb, affectionate 2003 critique of commune living, The Inner Circle dredges up respect for its subject, but Boyle understands the human animal well enough to know the consequences of putting Kinsey's radical ideas into practice.
With an evocative feel for the tenor of the times, Boyle captures the sense of scandal and excitement at the University of Indiana in the early '40s, when Kinsey's "marriage course" set off the first mortar round in his one-man sexual revolution. Open only to seniors, faculty members, and married or engaged underclassmen, the course prompted numerous engagements of convenience among curious students lured by academically sanctioned titillation. Smoothly integrating fact with invention, Boyle views the events through his fictional narrator John Milk, an awkward, sex-shy student whose immediate devotion to Kinsey (or "Prok," as he was more casually known) leads to a job as the first of the professor's four assistants. Their ongoing mission is to collect the thousands of sex histories that resulted in two groundbreaking studies, Sexual Behavior In The Human Male and the even more notorious female volume. With increasing pressure and scrutiny bearing down on them, Prok insists that those in his inner circle practice what they preach, which means dissolving marital boundaries, defying sexual norms, and even conducting semi-regular bedroom sessions with the professor himself.
Naturally, Prok's demands place a burden on Milk once Milk marries a small-town girl who doesn't take well to the long road trips, the unsavory interview subjects, and the requisite extramarital affairs. Again and again, Milk's fanatical devotion to Kinsey's science project runs headlong against contradictory human impulses: When his wife sleeps with a sexually voracious colleague, he's seized with jealousy; when he observes a filmed sex act, he can't quash his arousal; and when he records the history of a particularly objectionable creature, his conscience intrudes on his objectivity.
Throughout The Inner Circle, Boyle wages a war of attrition between the heart and the head, pinpointing the wildly mixed signals they send to the lower extremities. In the end, he calls for a truce, to be found in some reasonable place where pursuing sexual impulses doesn't mean divorcing them from emotional or moral considerations. This may be an obvious point, but Boyle's strong insight into human nature allows him to make it without diminishing Kinsey's impact or importance in wresting America out of the sexual Dark Ages. Without watering down the message, he makes a convincing argument for responsible liberation.