Sex, love, science and Alfred Kinsey

September 19, 2004|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle, Viking, $25.95, 432 pages

It is, they say, an urban legend that men think about sex every seven seconds. So let's be reasonable - and let's throw in women, too, because, after all, it is the 21st century - and put it at closer to every seven minutes.

If you're within hailing distance of a bookstore, that could give you just enough time to find T.C. Boyle's latest novel, The Inner Circle, which is not just about sex but about the father of the sexual revolution, Alfred Kinsey himself, who set all those 1950s hormones free. Nothing has been the same since.

For those unfamiliar with the story line, Kinsey set out to convince America that s-e-x, of virtually any d-e-s-c-r-i-p-t-i-o-n, was a natural act that should be studied scientifically. This was a radical notion in 1939, when the book begins at Indiana University, where Kinsey - "Prok" to his friends - was a zoology professor.

John Milk, the fictional narrator of the book who becomes Prok's first research assistant, quotes Kinsey this way: "They've had three thousand years to go on about love, now give science a chance." The scientific method leads to Kinsey's two explosive works - Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) - that prove, if nothing else, that statistics can be dirty, too.

There's science, you see, and then there's science. Boyle's novel starts where Kinsey's biographers have led us. It turns out that Prok is not an altogether disinterested scientist. In fact, he's all too interested. He may talk of science, but in the end he's having sex with his assistants, whom he encourages to have sex with his wife. There's voyeurism. There's even naked gardening. And, of course, there's the desperate need to keep it all secret for fear of jeopardizing the project. There's everything, in other words, a novelist could hope for.

Boyle follows Prok's team, from prisons to schoolhouses to brothels, as it records thousands of sexual histories. Boyle, the humorist, knows how to work a room. The scene where they measure - well, for the sake of decorum, I can't say exactly what they measure - makes you wish you were in junior high so you could underline it and show your friends.

In his previous novel, Drop City, a National Book Award finalist, Boyle went back to the hippies of the early '70s. He had sex on his mind then, too, asking whether free sex can ever be entirely free.

With The Inner Circle, Boyle goes back another 30 years, mixing history with fiction. Kinsey, with all his contradictions, is the obvious place to go, but maybe too obvious. If there's a problem with the book -- and it's hardly Boyle'sbest work --it's that the reader always knows where it's going: that thehapless Milk and his wife Iris, the reluctant recruit, will inevitably findthemselves at the intersection of love and sex.

Of course, the relationship of sex to love is a question many of the masters have pondered. As I read, I kept thinking of a scene from Woody Allen's Love and Death:

Sonja: Oh, don't, Boris, please. Sex without love is an empty experience.

Boris: Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best.

Mike Littwin is a columnist for The Rocky Mountain News. Until, 1996, he was a columnist at The Sun.

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