Outside Looking In

Written by T.C. Boyle
Review by Sherry Jones

This novel about acid guru Timothy Leary, his band of Harvard-grad-student devotees, and their 1960s acid-laced research into the psychiatric possibilities for LSD should be fascinating from beginning to end, but, like its protagonists, loses its way.

Psychology doctoral student Fitzhugh Loney and his wife, Joanie, find themselves drawn into the charismatic Leary’s circle, which meets weekly to indulge in psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and record their experiences. Soon the shrooming morphs into LSD use, with trip after trip described in wondrous detail—like hallucinogenics themselves, enjoyable until it isn’t. Meanwhile, the Loneys give up everything—Joanie’s library job that supports the family, Fitz’s doctoral studies, their teenage son’s innocence, and more, to join Leary’s commune, where the trips grow more frequent and intense and the reasons for using the drug more nebulous. Fitz develops an obsession about a creepy, strung-out, extremely young woman for reasons that are never clear, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters visit, and Fitz and Joanie’s teenage son begins a sexual relationship with the daughter of fellow commune members.

Danger looms on every page—drugs, free love, and children surely don’t mix, right?— but nothing ever really happens in this overlong yawner. Outside Looking In purportedly explores big themes such as LSD as a “belief system” and its power to bring us to “God” but ultimately proves to be little more than a commentary on the hazards of excess—a lesson Boyle and his editors might have done well to heed.