Lucy and Todd

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Outside Looking In — T C Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 17, 2019 at 7:28 am

Whatever you think about Timothy Leary, the guy was trouble. A pain in the arse for psychologists, for Harvard University, for parents, for Richard Nixon, even, who called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ Kicked out of academe, he led a series of communes based on self-discovery dependent on the use of LSD. The honesty and possible usefulness of all this went rapidly downhill.

This novel by the prolific TC Boyle is a puzzle. It deals with many themes he’s used before: small groups of people under pressure to conform, renegade behaviour in the search for truth and spiritual fulfilment. In his excellent novel of Los Angeles, The Tortilla Curtain, he explored the frightened lives of illegal Mexican immigrants. San Miguel touchingly portrayed an unlucky family’s desperate attempt to make a living on an isolated California island. The Terranauts was a lengthy story of men and women sealed in a biosphere bubble for a year. Boyle’s early novel The Road to Wellville was a comic tour-de-force about a community of health food crackpots.

The problem with Outside Looking In is: how do you write interestingly about people who are irredeemably dull? Boyle mocks the intelligence of the Harvard postgrads who follow Leary around like ducklings, particularly his insecure graduate student protagonist, Fitz.

Fitz is not much fun to read about. He’s a jerk, a psychology academic. He’s timid. He knows nothing about himself and he’s got female breasts on the brain. It’s a little hard to believe that he teaches at Harvard. Or maybe it isn’t.

Fitz’s wife, Joanie, is the novel’s real subject in terms of revelation. Not as well educated as Fitz, she works as a local librarian. But once the psychedelics start flowing, she becomes possessive of the experience and is up for anything ‘Tim’ wants to do. When the group is disgraced in Massachusetts and moves to a hotel in Mexico, Joanie starts sleeping with the other men. This is another Tim idea: use the drugs to break down sexual jealousy. Worked for him, apparently.

We suddenly see the reality of the endeavour from a woman’s perspective. And while Joanie is gung-ho for acid and all the other stuff that’s hanging around these fearsomely conventional would-be revolutionaries (beer, wine, cigarettes, pot, martinis, station wagons and pizza), there’s still a lot of cooking and housework. Guess who does it.

It’s difficult to tell what Boyle really thinks about the little communities he writes about. At times it seems he’s chiding them for believing that anything could ever be different in America than it is. But just as often he takes their side, a champion of the inherent value of weirdness and the contrarian.

But maybe these people are just incompetents. Where is the certainty that what LSD does is genuine? Does it just poison you in such a way that you think something has been ‘revealed’? (The brain is always trying to order things, no matter what you do to it.) These sad sacks never elided grandly into the world, or transformed it. They became parasites, mooching off millionaires, fighting with cops and taking menial jobs.

The richest and best imagined part of Outside Looking In is about Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD in 1943, and experimented with it on himself and his colleagues. Told from the point of view of his lab assistant, it’s a virtuoso performance by Boyle – joyous, mad-scientist slapstick, frightening, profound and even erotic. One could wish that Boyle’s narrative excitement here could be sustained through the rest of the novel. But then the academics arrive and humour and joy, of course, are banished, no matter what pills are popped.

In the ‘commune’ novels of Boyle there’s often a capitalist intervention – a sudden realization that somebody’s got to make some dough around here. The upstate New York group decides to offer revelation and the ‘sacrament’ (LSD) to businessmen and bored housewives, for money. Joanie, doing the dishes as usual, is looking out of the kitchen window. A man appears asking a question that startles her but reveals to us the depth of this whole ‘spiritual’ enterprise: Where do I park?


(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2019.)

Muscle — Alan Trotter

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 14, 2019 at 6:27 am

‘… He said that they were lucky if he didn’t take their little city from them and grind it under his heel. He said that a man who couldn’t at any moment point to a dozen necks he’d like snapped was a man without imagination who didn’t deserve to be in charge of a poem, let alone a city.’

It would be a clever reviewer who could discuss Muscle in the way that it should be discussed without spoiling it. What looks initially like an ultra-modern pastiche of the entire hard-boiled world, meaning every pulp novel ever written, good movies and bad, even whole ‘noir’ towns and people, turns out to be anything but that.

The plot, which is enormously dangerous to talk about, concerns some pretty lousy citizens and the depredations they practise on one another. There are two types on a train who might be Beckett’s Mercier and Camier, if they were hit-men. In between little assassinations, they discuss their calling with detached erudition:

‘Our own self-interest is not threatened,’ says Charles, ‘so the impulse that demands that society disapprove of our action doesn’t lash at us. If we punish ourselves, then we are holding ourselves to a higher standard than that to which society holds itself.’

‘And why,’ says Hector, ‘would it be reasonable to expect us to do that?’

The dialogue and the prose in Muscle flit effortlessly around the whole range of its sources and influences. Its prose is sullen, muzzy, droop-lidded. Some of it reads like a David Mamet play; there are undercurrents of Damon Runyon. There are utterances recognizable as pure Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Muscle’s inner logic, though highly poetic, is far superior to the junk in which it finds its origins.

There’s an unexpected side to this book, an element of pure, luridly coloured pulp fantasy, which Alan Trotter brilliantly locates as co-existing in the same time period with the elements of the crime fictions he’s playing with. What does a barely-educated thug do when he is tired of drinking, cards, and women – what does a thug read?

Which brings us to our sympathetic narrator, named Box. He is pure muscle, and assists a very hotheaded middle-level operator, represented in the text with the non-name ‘____’. Box and ____ are given periodic assignments applying pressure, or ‘easing the flow of regret’ as they like to put it. In a card game, Box meets Holcomb, a writer for pulp magazines, and one day while on stakeout, bored out of his mind, he reads one of Holcomb’s sci-fi stories.

At first he’s baffled by it, but then it comes to make sense to him, even to haunt him. There is something really unsettling yet amusing about a big bruiser like this, a truly dangerous guy, stumbling upon what may well be the only printed matter in this horrid town, or at least in this crumby neighbourhood, and finding it enlightening, even transformative: the only food for thought he will ever encounter.

Holcomb’s stories are about centuries, aeons, of intolerable waiting (which Box and ____ know something about) and finding a key to the nature of time. But not for a reason that is good. The stories are not sane, and it’s terrible to watch Box being drawn into their stupid way of thinking. At this point it’s like Jim Thompson has met HP Lovecraft, and they’re planning on getting married.

Things don’t turn out well for Box. He’s frustrated in love, and the business of beating people into various forms of pulp isn’t going too well. He begins to think that he can build a device like one in the stories, so that he can atone, sort out his existence. And it’s not a good idea, this horrible device that he wears on his head ‘like a nest made from refuse’. His own solipsistic version of some very dire events is loudly contradicted by Swagger, a detective, who thankfully for us retains some grip on reality, even as Muscle veers into other worlds, taking Box with it:

‘Swagger has grown so big there is no space in the room to stand, I’m pressed up against the wall. His tooth swings open like a door and I go inside the hot cavern of his mouth and his voice surrounds me.’

This is a remarkable, radical, historical novel. It’s as if everything bad about the 1940s and 50s is still circling the earth, another planet. You are practically strapped into a broken chair in a smoky, dingy room and forced to watch a writer at play, to watch his imagination, and what imaginations he gives his characters, zoom. How often do you get that chance?



(This review appeared in the Herald on Feb. 10, 2019)