Fresh on the heels of his New York Times bestselling and National Book Award- nominated novel, Drop City, T.C. Boyle has spun an even more dazzling tale that will delight both his longtime devotees and a legion of new fans. Boyle’s tenth novel, The Inner Circle has it all: fabulous characters, a rollicking plot, and more sex than pioneering researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey ever dreamed of documenting . . . well, almost.
A love story, The Inner Circle is narrated by John Milk, a virginal young man who in 1940 accepts a job as an assistant to Dr. Alfred Kinsey, an extraordinarily charming professor of zoology at Indiana University who has just discovered his life’s true calling: sex. As a member of Kinsey’s "inner circle" of researchers, Milk (and his beautiful new wife) is called on to participate in sexual experiments that become increasingly uninhibited—and problematic for his marriage. For in his later years Kinsey (who behind closed doors is a sexual enthusiast of the first order) ever more recklessly pushed the boundaries both personally and professionally.
While Boyle doesn’t resist making the most of this delicious material, The Inner Circle is at heart a very moving and very loving look at sex, marriage, and jealousy that will have readers everywhere reassessing their own relationships—because, in the end, "love is all there is."
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T.C. Boyle has written nine novels and has published six collections of short fiction. He received the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel World’s End and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. His stories appear regularly in The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, and Playboy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
August 25, 1956
Looking back on it now, I don’t think I was ever actually “sex shy” (to use one of Prok’s pet phrases), but I’ll admit I was pretty naïve when I first came to him, not to mention hopelessly dull and conventional. I don’t know what he saw in me, really—or perhaps I do. If you’ll forgive me a moment of vanity, my wife, Iris, claims I was something of a heartthrob on campus, though I would have been the last to know of it because I wasn’t dating and had always been uncomfortable with the sort of small talk that leads up to the casual inquiry about after-class plans or what you might or might not be doing on Saturday after the game. I had a pretty fair physique in those days, with a matching set of fullback’s shoulders and a thirty-inch waist (I was first string on my high school team till I suffered a concussion midway through my junior season and my mother put a premature end to my career), and unlike most men at college, I was conscientious about keeping myself in trim—I still am—but that’s neither here nor there. To complete the portrait, because already I’ve managed to get myself out on a limb here, I was blessed with what Iris calls “sensitive” eyes, whatever that might mean, and a thatch of wheat-colored hair with a natural curl that defeated any cream or pomade I’d ever come across. As for sex, I was eager but inexperienced, and shy in the usual way—unsure of myself and just about as uninformed as anyone you could imagine.
In fact, the first time I developed anything more than a theoretical grasp of what coitus involved—the mechanics of the act, that is—was during my senior year at IU, in the fall of 1939, when I found myself sitting in a lecture hall jammed to the rafters with silent, dry-mouthed students of both sexes as Prok’s color slides played hugely across the screen. I was there at the instigation of a girl named Laura Feeney, one of the campus femmes fatales who never seemed to go anywhere without an arm looped through some letterman’s. Laura had the reputation of being “fast,” though I can assure you I was never the beneficiary of her sexual largesse (if, in fact, the rumors were true: as I was later to learn, the most provocative-looking women often have the most repressed sex lives, and vice versa). I remember being distinctly flattered when she stopped me in the corridor one day during fall registration, took hold of my arm at the muscle and pecked a kiss on my cheek.
“Oh, hi, John,” she breathed, “I was just thinking about you. How was your summer?”
My summer had been spent back home in Michigan City, stocking shelves and bagging groceries, and if I had five minutes to myself my mother had me pruning the trees, reshingling the roof and pulling weeds in the vegetable garden. I was lonely, bored to tears, masturbating twice a day in my attic room that was like a sweatbox in a penal institution. My only relief derived from books. I came under the spell of John Donne and Andrew Marvell that summer, and I reread Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella three times in preparation for an English literature course I was looking forward to in the fall. But I couldn’t tell Laura Feeney all this—or any of it. She would have thought me a washout. Which I was. So I just shrugged and said, “All right, I guess.”
Voices reverberated in the stairwell, boomed in the corners and fled all the way down the corridor to where the registration tables had been set up in the gymnasium. “Yeah,” Laura said, and her smile went cold a moment, “I know how you feel. With me it was work, work, work—my father owns a lunch counter in Fort Wayne, did you know that?”
I didn’t know. I shook my head and felt a whole shining loop of my hair fall loose, though I must have used half a bottle of crème oil on it. I was wearing one of the stiff new Arrow shirts my grandmother had sent me from Chicago and a glen-plaid tie I think I wore to class every day that year in the hope of making a good impression, my briefcase was in one hand, a stack of library books in the other. As I’ve said, the gift of small talk eluded me. I think I said something like, “Fort Wayne, huh?”
In any event, it didn’t matter what I said, because she let her turquoise eyes go wide (she was a redhead, or a strawberry blonde, actually, with skin so white you’d think it had never seen the sun), gave my muscle a squeeze and lowered her voice. “Listen,” she said, “I just wanted to know if you’d mind getting engaged to me—”
Her words hung there between us, closing out everything else—the chatter of the group of freshmen materializing suddenly from the men’s room, the sound of an automobile horn out on the street—and I can only imagine the look I must have given her in response. This was long before Prok taught me to tuck all the loose strands of my emotions behind a mask of impassivity, and everything I was thinking routinely rushed to my face along with the blood that settled in my cheeks like a barometer of confusion.
“John, you’re not blushing, are you?”
“No,” I said, “not at all. I’m just—”
She held my eyes, enjoying the moment. “Just what?”
I shrugged. “We were out in the sun—yesterday it was, yesterday afternoon. Moving furniture. So, I guess, well—”
Someone brushed by me, an undergraduate who looked vaguely familiar—had he been in my psych class last year?—and then she let the other shoe drop. “I mean, just for the semester. For pretend.” She looked away and her hair rose and fell in an ebbing wave. When she turned back to me, she lifted her face till it was like a satellite of my own, pale and glowing in the infusion of light from the windows at the end of the corridor. “You know,” she said, “for the marriage course?”
That was the moment it all began, though I didn’t realize it at the time—how could I? How could I have foreseen that a shallow, manipulative girl I hardly knew would be the motive force that was to lead me to Prok and Mac, Corcoran, Rutledge, to the desk at which I’m now sitting, trying to get as much of this out as I can before the world goes to pieces? I said, “Yes.” I said, “Yes, all right,” and Laura Feeney smiled and before I knew it I was on my way to becoming an initiate in the science of sex, abandoning the ideal for the actual, the dream of Stella (“True, that true beauty virtue is indeed”) for anatomy, physiology and an intimate knowledge of the Bartholin’s glands and the labia minora. All of it—all the years of research, the thousands of miles traveled, the histories taken, the delving and rooting and pioneering—spun out like thread from an infinite spool held in the milk-white palm of Laura Feeney on an otherwise ordinary morning in the autumn of 1939.
But I don’t want to make too much of it—we all have our defining moments. And I don’t mean to keep you in the dark here either. The “marriage course” to which Laura Feeney was referring—Marriage and the Family, properly—was being offered by Professor Kinsey of the Zoology Department and half a dozen of his colleagues from other disciplines, and it was the sensation of the campus. The course was open only to faculty and staff, students who were married or engaged, and seniors of both sexes. There were eleven lectures in all, five of them covering the sociological, psychological, economic, legal and religious facets of marriage, these to be delivered by faculty outside of the Zoology Department, and they were to prove to be informative enough, I suppose, and necessary, but if truth be told they were nothing more than window dressing for the six unexpurgated lectures (with audiovisual aids) Prok was scheduled to give on the physiology of intramarital relations.
Word was out on campus, and I suspect there were any number of junior girls like Laura Feeney shopping at the five-and-dime for rhinestone rings—maybe even sophomores and freshmen too. My guess is that Laura’s lettermen were engaged to their fall sports, and, by extension, their coaches, and so she cast me in the role of prospective bridegroom. I didn’t mind. I would say she wasn’t my type, but then all women are every man’s type, under the right circumstances. She was popular, she was pretty, and if for an hour or two a week people took her to be mine, so much the better. To this point, I’d been immersed in my studies—I made dean’s list five out of the first six semesters—and I barely knew any girls, either on campus or back at home, and to have her there at my side as other couples strolled by and the late-blooming sun ladled syrup over the trees and the apparent world stood still for whole minutes at a time was like no feeling I’d ever had. Was it love? I don’t know. It was certainly something, and it stirred me—I could always hope, couldn’t I?
At any rate, as I say, word was out, and the lecture hall was full to overflowing when we got there the first day. I remember being surprised at the number of younger faculty crowding the front rows with their prim and upright wives and how many of them I didn’t recognize. There was a sprinkling of older faculty too, looking lost and even vaguely queasy, and their presence was a real puzzle—you would have thought people in their forties and fifties with grown children should be acquainted with the basic facts of life, but there they were. (“Maybe they need a refresher course,” Laura said with half a grin and very much sotto voce, and even that, even the barest mention of what those couples must have done in private—or once have done—made me go hot all over.) But of course the real multitude was composed of students—there must have been three hundred or more of us there, crowded in shoulder to shoulder, all waiting to be scandalized, to hear the forbidden words spoken aloud and see the very act itself depicted in living color.
Dr. Hoenig, the Dean of Women, had been stationed at the door as we filed in, ready to pounce on anyone who wasn’t on her list of registered students. She was a short, top-heavy woman in a dowdy dress and a gray cloche hat that seemed like an extension of her pinned-up hair, and though she must have been in her forties then she seemed to us as ancient and vigilant as the Sphinx, her spectacles shining as she bent to check names against the list and scrutinize the ring fingers of all the girls who claimed to be engaged. We passed muster, and sat through the preliminary lectures, biding our time until Dr. Kinsey took the stage. We’d seen him at the outset—he’d electrified us all in his introductory lecture by claiming that there were no abnormalities when it came to sex, save for abstinence, celibacy and delayed marriage—but then he’d been succeeded by a doctor from the medical school whose voice was perfectly pitched to the frequency of sleep, and then a Methodist minister and a pinched little man from the Psychology Department who spoke ad nauseam on Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.
It was raining, I remember, on the day we’d all been waiting for—the day of the slide presentation—and as Laura Feeney and I stepped into the anteroom with the mob of other students divesting themselves of umbrellas and slickers, I was struck by the deep working odor of all that massed and anointed flesh. Laura must have noticed it too, because the minute she ducked demurely past Dean Hoenig, she wrinkled up her nose and whispered, “Smells like somebody let all the tomcats loose.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I gave her a faint smile—it wouldn’t do at all to look as if I were enjoying myself, because this was education, after all, this was science, and every face had been ironed sober—and allowed my right hand to rest lightly at her waist as I guided her through the crush and into the semi-darkened hall. We were fifteen minutes early, but already all the aisle seats had been taken and we had to edge awkwardly through a picket of folded knees, book bags and umbrellas to reach the middle of one of the back rows. Laura settled in, shook out her hair, waved to thirty or forty people I didn’t recognize, then bent forward over her compact and stealthily reapplied her lipstick. She came up compressing her lips and giving me the sort of look she might have reserved for a little brother or maybe the family dog—she was a junior from Fort Wayne and I was a senior from Michigan City and no matter how much I wanted to believe otherwise there was nothing, absolutely nothing, between us.
I gazed down the row. Nearly all the girls were glancing round them with shining eyes while the men fumbled with loose-leaf binders and worried over the nubs of their pencils. A man from my rooming house—Dick Martone—happened to glance up then and our eyes met briefly. Both of us looked away, but not before I could read his excitement. Here we were—he wedged in between two other senior men, I with Laura Feeney preening at my side—about to see and engage what we’d been hungering after for the better part of our lives. I can’t begin to describe the frisson that ran through that hall, communicated from seat to seat, elbow to elbow, through the whole yearning mass of us. Over the course of the past weeks we’d been instructed in the history and customs of marriage, heard about the emotions evoked, the legal ramifications of the nuptial bond and even the anatomy of the structures involved in reproduction, heard the words “penis,” “nipple,” “vagina” and “clitoris” spoken aloud in mixed company, and now we were going to see for ourselves. I could feel the blood pounding in my extremities.
Then the side door swung open and Dr. Kinsey was there, striding purposefully to the podium. Though a moment before he’d been slogging across campus in galoshes and southwester, you would have thought he’d just stepped out of a sunlit meadow, the sheaf of his bristling flat-topped pompadour standing upright from the crown of his head as if it had been pressed from a mold, his dark suit, white shirt and bow tie impeccable, his face relaxed and youthful. He was in his mid-forties then, a looming tall presence with an oversized head, curiously narrowed shoulders and a slight stoop—the result of the rickets he’d suffered as a child—and he never wasted a motion or a single minute of anybody’s time either. The anticipatory murmur fell off abruptly as he stepped up to the lectern and raised his head to look out on the audience. Silence. Absolute. We all became aware of the sound of the rain then, a steady sizzle like static in the background.
“Today we shall discuss the physiology of sexual response and orgasm in the human animal,” he began, without preliminary, without notes, and as his equable, matter-of-fact tones penetrated the audience, I could feel Laura Feeney go tense beside me. I stole a glance at her. Her face was rapt, her white blouse glowing in the dimness of the lecture hall as if it were the single radiant point in the concave sweep of the audience. She was wearing knee socks and a pleated skirt that pulled tight to reveal the swell of the long muscles of her thighs. Her perfume took hold of me like a vise.
Professor Kinsey—Prok—went on, with the help of the overhead projector, to document how the penis enlarges through vasocongestion and at orgasm releases between two and five million spermatozoa, depending on the individual, and then turned his attention to the female reproductive organs. He talked ...
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