I did both a podcast and a written review of this novel, mostly the same content.
Outside Looking In by T. Coraghessan Boyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Outside Looking In, by T.C. Boyle is a novel about the early days of LSD experimentation in Basel, Switzerland and upstate, New York. Boyle, like any novelist covering historic events, has to navigate the path between truth, fiction, and speculation. The novel is populated with a mixture of real (Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Michael Hollingshead, Albert Hofmann) and fictional characters, including the two narrators who join Leary’s inner circle at Millbrook, Fitz and Joanie Loney. Boyle confuses things a bit by giving his novel the same name as an earlier book on a similar topic, an anthology of recollections by many influential members of the psychedelic movement such as Leary, Alpert, Hofmann, Alan Ginsburg, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Note: The remainder of this review contains what might be considered spoilers. As this is basically a historical novel, spoilers don’t really matter as much as they would in a suspense novel or mystery. Events regarding Leary, for example, are well known. However, if you want to read for yourself how the (fictional) Loneys fare, I’d suggest reading the novel first.
The first section begins with Albert Hofmann testing LSD on himself and an assistant in Sandoz Laboratories in Basel. As is well known, the compound’s psychoactive elements were discovered by accident while Hofmann was conducting medical research for Sandoz. He first discovered these properties back in 1938 and in 1943, right in the middle of World War II, began taking large dosages and writing down effects such as seeing vivid colors, spatial distortions, and spiritual experiences.
After the introduction in Basel, the rest of Outside Looking In takes place in the early 1960s and follows Timothy Leary from Harvard University to Zihuatanejo, Mexico and, finally, to Millbrook, the Dutchess County, New York, mansion that became a community for Leary and his acolytes.
Fitz is a graduate student at Harvard working towards his PhD. Timothy Leary, his advisor, is lackadaisical about academic matters but recruits Fitz and his wife Joanie into his community of experimenters. Fitz and Joanie have a teenage son Corey, and much of the novel concerns the difficulty of balancing family life taking large doses of mind-altering substances. They start with psilocybin but “graduate” to LSD and take increasingly strong doses.
At this point, Outside Looking In mostly fits into the formula of portraying the dire consequences of taking drugs and neglecting your worldly responsibilities. It also explores the dangers of falling under the spell of a charismatic leader. Leary, who is expelled from Harvard for his unconventional practices, is portrayed (probably accurately) as a charismatic and often manipulative leader who is often oblivious to practical reality and long term consequences. He takes the group to Mexico, where they set up an idyllic tropical paradise until they are all expelled by the Mexican authorities. They then set up shop in Millbrook, where they are harassed by the local police.
The Millbrook part of the story sort of parallels the material covered in the Netflix movie Wild, Wild Country, about the conflict between Osho and his followers and the small-town Oregon residents who are ultimately victimized by the Osho cult. Of course, Leary’s group was relatively small and never did more than violate the norms of the square, uptight straight residents (to describe them in the jargon of the times) of upstate New York. Still, both deal with the culture clash between spiritual seekers attempting to usher in a new age of spiritual enlightenment and conservative townsfolk who resist change.
One of the central limitations of Outside Looking In is that Boyle doesn’t really appreciate the transcendent qualities of substances such as psilocybin and LSD. He describes many a trip, and they cover the spectrum from interesting and kaleidoscopic to hellish. But the kind of transcendence that many seekers have reported isn’t experienced by Fitz or Joanie; it’s only referred to by Leary and his acolytes. In a way, this novel comes along at a strange time. There’s currently quite a renaissance in psychedelic research, especially psilocybin and MDMA, both of which show promise for treating depression and PTSD. Boyle doesn’t seem particularly interested in looking at the positive side of psychedelics.
This isn’t to say that the downward spiral of events in the novel is unrealistic. In fact, the experiences of Leary and his group in Cambridge, Mexico, and Millbrook were often chaotic and harmful. However, there’s certainly another side to the whole movement, one that Boyle barely addresses. In a way, the novel seems a bit dated in its outlook and not because of its setting in the early 1960s but in its implicit endorsement of conventional society. I’m not saying that Boyle intended to write a conventional cautionary tale about how drugs and a cult of personality can destroy homes and families, but around halfway through it falls into this rather simplistic model.
One way that Boyle pushes the reader’s sympathy away from Leary and his group is by making the Loney’s young parents. As Fitz and Joannie get ever more engulfed in their LSD sessions, teenaged Corey is increasingly neglected. As portrayed in the novel, Corey and the other kids (including Leary’s own) form a semi self-sufficient group of their own. There’s also the touchy issue of giving drugs to kids, which inevitably happens. It seems that Boyle was anxious to drill this point home as otherwise there was no reason to make the Loney’s parents. After all, how many college students, even in graduate programs, have children?
Another message of Outside Looking In is that monogamy doesn’t mix well with drug experimentation. Fitz and Joannie drift apart, experimenting with new partners in the group. Fitz becomes so obsessed with a young drifter who attaches herself to the group that he barely notices when Joannie takes Corey away from Millbrook. Outside Looking In is interesting as a work of historical fiction. Boyle effectively captures many of the norms, dialog, and mannerisms of America in the period just before the more substantial changes of the late 60s. Beyond this, however, it ends up being a fairly conventional cautionary tale rather than a book that offers any deep insights into the complex and multifaceted psychedelic phenomenon.
In an interview with NPR, Boyle discusses his own experience with psychedelics and admits, “I never had a good trip.” The truth of this statement is quite evident throughout the novel. It’s understandable that someone who’s never had positive or meaningful experiences would tend to focus on the downside of these drugs.
View all my reviews