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by T.C. Boyle

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 2004
ISBN: 0-670-03344-8
Publisher: Viking

The career of sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, as seen in Boyle’s rangy, entertaining tenth novel—which bears a strong resemblance to his 1993 blockbuster, The Road to Wellville.

The story is narrated in retrospect by John Milk, who first encounters the good doctor in 1939, in the latter’s “Marriage and the Family” course at Indiana University. An initially reluctant “initiate in the science of sex,” John becomes the prize student, disciple, coworker, and occasional lover of the charismatic “Prok” (i.e., Professor Kinsey). While Prok orchestrates the research (mainly, probing interviews) that will culminate in the creation of his Institute for Sexual Research and groundbreaking studies of male and female sexual behavior, John wrestles with his own inchoate erotic nature, the threat of wartime army service, and a difficult relationship with his young wife Iris. Much of this is dizzyingly readable, and Boyle is a past master at transforming scrupulously researched material into crisply funny scenes. We do get to meet several blithely forthcoming female interviewees and Milk’s affable bisexual colleague Purvis Corcoran—as well as eavesdrop on sessions with overeager spouses, curious moppets, and a sexagenarian virtuoso (“The extreme case that gives the lie to the norm”), the last of which allows Boyle to use the line “Dr. Kinsey, I presume?” But it all feels simultaneously labored and underplotted. Reactionary disapproval of Kinsey’s pioneering work rears its head periodically, and there’s little real development otherwise of Boyle’s arresting premise. The best things here are the searching, genuinely complex characterizations of its two protagonists: Prok the grand mal obsessive, as much innovative genius as he is self-indulgent thrill-seeker; and John Milk an ingenuous tabula rasa whose innate humanity keeps him from fully committing to the clinical quantification of how “the human animal” lives and loves.

A great subject imperfectly tamed and controlled. Well worth reading, but not Boyle’s best.