1962 was a year on the cusp. John F. Kennedy and his promise of a United States leading the world into a future of liberty and justice for all guided the liberal masses in the Midwest, California and Harvard Square. Critiques of this brave new world driven by a profit-based idealism had yet to become mainstream. The Left was making some noise as the Red Scare ebbed and the civil rights movement grew, yet politics remained within the arena defined by Republicans and Democrats. Hardly anyone outside of Washington and the Pentagon had heard of Vietnam and the Cuban Missile showdown had resolved itself without a missile being launched. Life was good for the US middle class—white, well off and secure. The counterculture was in the future and the beatniks kept to themselves. A guy who called himself Bob Dylan was getting ready to record his first record, the Beatles were playing bars in Germany, and Jerry Garcia was playing bluegrass and teaching guitar on occasion. Ken Kesey had just published his bestselling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a work inspired in part by his participation in US-government sponsored research that involved Kesey and others ingesting synthetic psilocybin and LSD-25.
Back in Harvard, perhaps a few blocks away from the previously mentioned Square, a psychologist was conducting his own research utilizing the same chemicals. Along with fellow psychologist Richard Alpert, Timothy Leary administered doses to himself and selected graduate students in a series of experiments that would eventually get the two of them kicked out of the university. But, in 1962 there was little or no attention paid to Leary or his research outside of his department.
This is where TC Boyle’s newest novel begins (after a brief interlude describing what it might have been like for Dr. Albert Hoffman and his assistant when he discovered LSD-25 in April 1943). Titled Outside Looking In—assumedly after the line from the Moody Blues’ song “Timothy Leary’s Dead”–Boyle’s work takes place inside Leary’s group of psychedelic pioneers. The story takes us from their assembly at Harvard to his retreat in Mexico and finally to the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook, NY. Told primarily through the eyes of a young couple who are invited into Leary’s circle, Boyle’s novel chronicles their interactions with other members of the group, the ups and downs of their own relationship and the influence of Leary and LSD on everyone. It is a tale of a time and a place; a tale of innocence and discovery, love and family, egos and sexuality.
Timothy Leary was a complex and often problematic personality. His self-promotion and ego often conflicted with his expressed belief that US society’s overemphasis on the individual and the fulfillment of individual needs and desires needed to be changed if humans are to survive. Like other bigger-than-life personalities of the era known as the Sixties, Leary stood in the middle of the bridge between the US culture of the past and the new one being invented throughout that period. These individuals we’re harbingers of the future, but were products of the past. It is that new culture within which we exist now. Yes, there are those who continue to try and bring us back to the world that ceased to exist by the mid-1970s, but their efforts are ineffective and even laughable.
This statement is not a judgment on whether or not some of the values forever mutilated or destroyed in the Sixties were worth keeping; it’s just a statement of fact. Women are not going to go back to subservient roles. Nor are Black Americans, Latinos, Native Americans or any other people of color. In terms of Timothy Leary and LSD, the acid has been eaten. Millions of US residents have tripped on psychedelic substances and even more have ingested marijuana. The genie is out of the lamp. The magic—good, bad and neutral—is already present.
Boyle does an almost perfect job writing down something that is often difficult to capture in words. Outside Looking In provides a genuine feeling of what it is like to be high on acid among friends. More impressively, the novel makes the reader begin to understand what it is like to be among a select few intent on changing themselves and ultimately the world. In his ultimately clever storytelling, Boyle presents the individual and collective struggles of Leary’s band of not-quite-acolytes as they navigate their way through a journey for which there were few maps.
While reading the novel, I was reminded at how easily so many of the stories of the Sixties lend themselves to fictionalization. In part, this is because they are often unique to the time. In other words, they never happened before or after. At the same time, it is also because the stories seem too fantastic to be real. This truth has led to a romanticization of the period just as it has led to its demonization. TC Boyle understands this, as he proved in his earlier novels based in the counterculture. That is one reason why he’s so damned good at telling those tales.