Just as he did in his last novel about scientists inhabiting Biosphere 2 in the 1990s ("The Terranauts"), T.C. Boyle's "Outside Looking In" takes a real-world event — Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary's LSD experiments in the 1960s — and imagines some of the people who went along for the trip.
Meet the Loneys: Grad student Fitzhugh, his wife, Joanie, and their son, Corey. Seeking to ingratiate himself in Harvard's psych department, Fitz convinces Joanie to attend one of Dr. Leary's "sessions" at his home. Before they know it, they're swallowing a "beginner's dose" of psilocybin, a precursor to LSD. And before they know that, they're having the best sex of their lives and apologizing to the babysitter for being so late.
The story moves fast from there. From Newton, Massachusetts, to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and finally to Millbrook, New York, the Loneys immerse themselves in Leary's communes, altering their minds regularly and testing the limits of family. The historical references may intrigue some readers, but the heart of the story is the Loney family. As their drug dependencies deepen, husband and wife move in opposite directions — Fitz starts being convinced that Leary is on the cutting edge of science, while Joanie appreciates the intimacy LSD creates. Three hundred pages later, nothing is what it was and Boyle's writing doesn't provide much hope for the family's future.
"Nothing quite fit right, as if the world were a suit of clothes that had shrunk in the dryer and had to be pinched and tugged till it stretched back out again," writes Boyle after Fitz comes down from a week-long trip sequestered with a teenage girl in a cottage.
Boyle doesn't pass judgment on behaviors that more than half a century later seem downright criminal. Corey takes his first trip — all the kids at the Millbrook estate do — before he's old enough to drive, and needless to say, middle school looks much less attractive when not high. The irony isn't hard to identify throughout the novel. Leary famously urged his disciples to "turn on, tune in, drop out," but the Loneys never manage to truly detach from the social dramas created by commune living.
The novel poses some interesting questions about the nature of belief and the existence of God, but like the hallucinations they sprout from, the questions dissolve as the drug's effects dissipate. What Boyle leaves us with is a cautionary tale. No matter how hard humans try, we can't escape the messy realities of life where there are rules of behavior and consequences for those who don't follow them.