The Inner Circle by T. C. Boyle
(Viking) $25.95

T. C. Boyle's novels and short stories contain characters whose pain is hidden behind idiosyncrasy, dogma, and desire, and he wrenches the seriousness of their lives from the consequences of their strange passions. In his latest novel, The Inner Circle, Boyle fixes his beam on the world of Alfred Kinsey, the Indiana-based sex researcher who, with his pioneering studies on human sexuality during the 1950s, laid the groundwork for the sexual revolution.

The Inner Circle, named after the small group of research assistants whom Kinsey employed, is the story of one of those assistants, John Milk. Milk--like all the characters in the book except Kinsey and his wife, Mac-- is fictitious, but everything about the mid-century Midwest in which the story takes place is spot-on. "The facts of Kinsey's life are accurate," Boyle said recently, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Barbara. "The world he inhabited is accurate. Everything else is a drama invented around it to try to think about what this person's life meant in history." Speaking of the ins and outs of sex research that populate the book, Boyle stressed the importance of verisimilitude over exposé. "I didn't want to embarrass anyone," Boyle said. "Some of these people are still alive. Only I know what's actually true in the book."

Such convincing immersion into modes of living unlike our own are what brings gravity to Boyle's off-center setups. Drop City, his previous novel, takes place in 1970 and tells the tale of a commune of hippies who decide to move from California's Russian River Valley to the Alaskan interior. The book is an elegy for the Back-to-the-Land movement, containing a mass of detail regarding the hunting, gathering, and construction one needs to do to survive (or, as the case may be, not survive) in this most unforgiving of climes.

In the case of The Inner Circle, Boyle's commitment to laying the factual groundwork yields a social milieu of benign sterility, with everything in its right place and not a moment of ambiguity to be had. Personified in the character of Milk, an intelligent yet guileless 22-year-old, Boyle captures an atmosphere of naiveté, curiosity, and fear about sexuality in American life following World War II. Professor Kinsey--or Prok, as he is known--is the one feral character in this tableau, and he finds in Milk the ultimate subject, bringing him on as a research assistant despite his complete lack of training.

Kinsey's world is one of moral ambiguity, mixing real sexual awareness with the manipulative nature of the guru, holding everyone around him to his philosophy, chastising others for the slightest hesitation to fully embrace his everything-goes vision of human sexual relations. As Milk falls into Kinsey's web, growing equally awakened and used, he serves as a parallel of America's coming rendezvous with sexual destiny. "I am always interested in the conflict between our animal selves and our spiritual selves," Boyle said. "It's my old obsession."

Boyle, who will give a lecture (and a reading from The Inner Circle) for Seattle Arts & Lectures on October 5, is known for his spirited appearances. "I normally do my little shtick, a little comedy, then a reading, but they want me to give an actual lecture, so I'll try to talk to how you integrate historical figures into fiction, and more importantly, why? Also, I hope to read some of the actual letters that were sent to Dr. Kinsey." He paused. "They are utterly, utterly heartbreaking."

T. C. Boyle lectures at Benaroya Hall (200 University St, 621-2230 for tickets) on Tues, Oct 5, at 7:30 pm; $10-$25.