Recent bestselling nonfiction books by Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan suggest that psychedelic drugs are poised to once again transform the zeitgeist. Could it be that we’re about to re-enter that buoyant experimental phase in which we look to psychedelics to unlock our spiritual and psychological prisons?
T.C. Boyle’s captivating 17th novel, Outside Looking In, takes the reader back to a similar moment in the early 1960s when LSD emerged from Timothy Leary’s and Richard Alpert’s experimental psychology labs at Harvard to quickly become the fuel for the transcontinental party bus of novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters—after which tripping became the coming-of-age ritual of a generation. The novel follows the well documented history of Tim, Dick and a coterie of grad students and followers as they travel—prodded along by frowning academic and legal authorities—from Harvard to Mexico to a 64-room mansion in Millbrook, north of New York City.
At its center is the fictional Loney family. Fitzhugh, “Fitz,” is a psychology grad student who has drawn Leary as his academic adviser; Fitz’s wife, Joanie, dropped out of college to support his career and have their child, Corey, now in his teens. They, especially Fitz, are outsiders at first. But they move into the group’s inner circle and experience the magic of its experiment along with its fraying edges.
Boyle, who apparently had his own days of wild and weird, is insightful and sometimes humorous in depicting the allure and chaos of attempting to live communally under the egocentric leadership of Timothy Leary, expand the individual and group mind through psychedelics, find God or not, and go deep into spiritual and physical love with people who are not necessarily legal partners. The novel vividly conveys what was seductively tactile, profound and sometimes scary about this moment in time.
But in the end, Outside Looking In offers a cautionary tale. A contemporary reader will wonder, for example, why in this communal paradise is it only women who cook and clean? And more importantly, after the party, what comes next?