In the ten novels that he wrote prior to The Inner Circle, T. Coraghessan Boyle regularly juxtaposes the timeless to the timely. His characters are invariably products of their era, their behavior shaped by the spirit of the age and the circumstances of the historical moment. At the same time, they usually express instinctive urges and hungers that are comically contradictory to the values people of their class and culture are expected to embrace. In several of his novels, Boyle has used an actual historical personality to crystallize this dichotomy: the explorer Mungo Park in Water Music (1981), entrepreneur and hygiene fanatic John Harvey Kellog in The Road to Wellville (1993), and Stanley McCormack, deranged heir of the McCormack reaper business empire, in Riven Rock (1998). Boyle places these characters at the center of their stories and reflects their fallibility in the eccentric orbits of imagined friends and associates who revolve about them, responding to (and often emulating) their influence.
The historical celebrity of The Inner Circle is Alfred C. Kinsey, author of the infamous Kinsey Report (actually two books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, published in 1948 and 1953, respectively) which shocked the American public with its analyses of sexual behaviors among ordinary men and women that, by the standards of the day, were judged kinky and even immoral. It should not have been shocking, though, because the American public was the source of Kinsey's data.
Kinsey's research, which revealed surprisingly high statistics for masturbation, premarital sex, oral sex, homosexual flings, incest, bestiality, and other acts usually considered sexually deviant, came from rigorous interviews, conducted over nearly a decade, of more than ten thousand Americans, who represented a broad cross-section of the national population in terms of age, race, education, geographic distribution, and socioeconomic status. By exposing how widespread unorthodox sexual practices were, Kinsey lowered the benchmark for what constituted “normal” sexuality, and in effect said there was no such thing as an “abnormal” sexual act. Nevertheless, it was hard (if not impossible) for a culture that took great pride in its values and moral standards to accept, as narrator John Milk puts it, that “man was pansexual, and it was only convention—law, custom, the church—that kept him from expressing himself with any partner that came along, of whatever sex or species.”
Milk would know, as the story of his personal relationship with Kinsey and his professional career as one of Kinsey's sex researchers reads like a case history straight out of the report. The Inner Circle, which is narrated in hindsight from the day of Kinsey's funeral in 1956, is Milk's memoir of nearly two decades in which Kinsey served as his mentor, confidant, business partner, scientific colleague, father figure, and occasional sexual partner. Biographies of Kinsey have reported that his own sexual proclivities were as polymorphous and indiscriminate as his research suggested many Americans secretly were.
In Boyle's novel, Kinsey—or “Prok” (for Professor Kinsey), as he is generally called—virtually demands pansexuality of his subordinates as a sign of their openmindedness and objectivity toward the work they are doing for him. The promiscuity and profligacy that Prok advocates (purely in the interest of science) creates tension throughout the novel for Milk, first as he attempts to throw off shackles of the Puritanism that has conditioned his attitudes toward “normal” sexuality, and eventually as he seeks fulfillment in a relationship that will transcend the pleasure principle.
The novel opens in 1939 with Milk, an undergraduate English major at Indiana University, being recruited by a beautiful but icy coed to playact as her fiancé so that they can attend Kinsey's class on “Marriage and the Family.” Consistent with the mores of the day, sex is a topic that is not supposed be discussed outside marriage, so only married (or soon-to-be-married) students are allowed to take the class.
The subterfuges students such as Milk use to attend are evidence of the shame and embarrassment about sex that Kinsey's study eventually helped...