Once Timothy Leary opened the Pandora’s box of LSD, everything changed.
Few novelists have benefited more from the freedom unleashed by the psychedelic revolution than the prolific Boyle (The Relive Box, 2017, etc.), but here he shows a buttoned-down control over his material, a deadpan innocence in the face of seismic changes to come. It’s an East Coast novel of academia by the West Coast novelist, and it’s a little like reading Richard Yates on the tripping experience. The novel’s catalyst is Dr. Timothy Leary (“Tim” throughout), though Boyle has wisely opted not to make him the protagonist but instead a figure seen and idealized through the eyes of others. At the novel’s center is the nuclear family of Fitzhugh and Joanie Loney and their teenage son, Corey. Fitz has been struggling to support himself as a Harvard graduate student in psychology, one of Leary's advisees, though one who is, as the title says, on the “outside looking in” as the psychedelic hijinks commence. It isn’t long before Leary seduces his student into the inner circle, where Joanie joins them and the nucleus of this family starts to destabilize as they make themselves part of a larger communal tribe. All in the name of science, as Fitz continues to believe, though Leary soon finds himself ousted from Harvard, his work discredited, his students in limbo. Is he a radical, reckless visionary or a self-promoting huckster? Perhaps a little of both. Without advocating or sermonizing, and without indulging too much in the descriptions of sexual comingling and the obligatory acid tripping, Boyle writes of the 1960s to come from the perspective of the '60s that will be left behind. It is Leary’s inner circle that soon finds itself on the outside—outside the academy, society, and the law—living in its own bubble, a bubble that will burst once acid emerges from the underground and doses the so-called straight world. In the process, what was once a means to a scientific or spiritual end becomes a hedonistic end in itself. And Fitz finds his family, his future, his morals, and his mind at risk. “I could use a little less party and a little more purpose—whatever happened to that?” he asks, long after the balance has been tipped.
Keeping his own stylistic flamboyance in check, Boyle evokes a cultural flashpoint with implications that transcend acid flashbacks.