Considering these permissive times, it may be difficult to understand that not so long ago, sex not only didn't saturate nearly everything we watched and read, but was a taboo subject in general. In The Inner Circle, his charmingly prurient look at American sex, best-selling author T.C. Boyle whose last book, Drop City, was a finalist for the National Book Award takes us back to an era when we were quicker to conquer Nazi evil than we were to conquer our own inherent prudishness.
It is 1940 when John Milk, a diffident Midwestern college student, is first exposed to Dr. Alfred Kinsey. While the astute Milk may have guessed that the magnetic professor of the university's most talked-about course, Marriage and Family, would become a sexual revolutionary, he never would have imagined such a fate for his more prosaic self.
But it doesn't take long before Milk is much more than Kinsey's student. He soon becomes Kinsey's first and most loyal factotum in the professor's quest to publish his now famous books on male and female sexuality. The two, who develop a relationship almost like father and son, travel the country grilling everyone from sexual adventurers to repressed housewives about their bedroom habits. They also take time to indulge in sex with each other. The road, after all, can be a lonely place.
Opposition to Kinsey's project abounds, but the central conflict is between Kinsey and Milk's beautiful and independent-minded wife, Iris. Resentful of the spell that Prok, as those close to Kinsey call him, has cast over her husband, Iris alternately tolerates Milk's job and tries to woo her husband away from his work. Kinsey, who is by turn satyr, workaholic, generous mentor and sullen child, recognizes Iris as a threat to his project and tries hard to reel her into his inner circle, but without success.
Even today, Kinsey's unorthodox research project continues to inspire controversy. Director Bill Condon's Kinsey, a biopic scheduled for release this fall and starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, has already drawn fire from critics concerned that it will glorify a man whose pursuit of knowledge led him onto some shaky moral ground. Kinsey's 1948 interview with an admitted pedophile which provided information on children's sexuality is often cited as an example of this. Boyle doesn't ignore this aspect of Kinsey's personality. In fact, he fictionalizes this event in a fascinating scene in <B>The Inner Circle</B>, using it to illustrate how single-minded the doctor and his team were in their research. Kinsey stubbornly clung to the tenets of the project: all results were to be confidential, and no researcher was to react negatively to any information provided, no matter how bizarre.
In recreating the larger-than-life Kinsey, Boyle has authored one of the most memorable characters in recent literature. Milk, often a milquetoast when backbone is called for, is his perfect foil, young and as malleable as wet clay. The Inner Circle is more than a fictionalized account of Kinsey's efforts to bring his life's work to fruition. It is paradoxically a celebration of free love and strong relationships as well as a paean to men, women and their sexuality. This important slice of Americana leaps to life, returning us to an era when sex was more than just a click away, and all the more titillating for it.
Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.