The Road to Wellville (1993)
There is something inherently amusing in any sort of fanaticism, at least until folks start getting hurt, which they almost always do. Manias and fads, by definition, lead folks to engage in behavior that looks nearly insane to the impartial observer. Meanwhile, America, for myriad reasons, has always provided fertile ground for self-improvement crazes. Perhaps the simple fact that democracy and capitalism offer people so much freedom to define themselves and opportunity to mold their own destinies just inevitably carries with it a darker flip-side in this heightened susceptibility to irrational and dubious schemes. Whatever the cause, T. Corraghessan Boyle takes glorious advantage of this national tendency in The Road to Wellville and renders a brutally funny portrait of the health food quacks and con artists of Battle Creek, Michigan.
Is there a kid with soul so dead that his heart doesn't start pumping a little bit faster when he hears that magical name?: Battle Creek, Michigan. I know when I was a kid, I so loved breakfast cereal that I ate it, to my Grandmother's abiding horror, out of a dog bowl, so that I could get a sufficiently Brobdignagian portion. And it can't be true, but in memories of childhood it certainly seems like every single on of those cereals was made in Battle Creek and somewhere they must have had a huge repository of knick knacks, gew gaws and various other cheesy toys, because that's always where you had to send away for them.
Well, unbeknownst to those of us who hoovered down Lucky Charms and Cap'n Crunch and Sugar Smacks and the like, the original breakfast cereals were the product of men like C.W. Post and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and they were part of a health fad. Apparently they weren't originally intended to deliver massive amounts of sugar and cheap toys to growing boys. Nor were men like Kellogg simply concerned with getting some grains into people's diets. In fact, he ran an enormous luxurious Sanitarium where wealthy patrons would come to cleanse themselves via meat-free diets, enemas five times a day and a whole battery of other wacky treatments and inspirational harangues from Kellogg.
Boyle takes this potent comic setting, made up of equal parts holiness and hucksterism, and sets up several storylines which all converge at the San. There's a confrontation between Kellogg and a wayward adopted son, the only one of his 40+ adoptees to rebel against Kellogg's bizarre health regimen. There's an increasingly troubled young married couple, Will and Eleanor Lightbody, troubled because she has bought into Kellogg's theories with gusto, while he loathes the regimentation and tasteless diet. Then there's Charlie Ossining, a young man on the make who just wants a piece of the cereal business and his own share of the American Dream.
Boyle gets in his fair share of gratuitous shots and slapstick gags, but there's a broader point that gets driven home along the way. For all of these characters utter self-absorption and the folly of their attempt to sort of re-engineer themselves, in the end they can not escape their essential humanness, their mortality, their physical and mental vulnerability and the ultimate spiritual emptiness of Kellogg's slogans. In the final scenes of the novel each character is reintroduced, abruptly, even violently, to the messy reality of the outside world. Kellogg's Spa is exposed as a kind of Potemkin Village, presenting a facade of health which masks the deep unhappiness and essentially unhealthy lives of it's residents.
It's interesting that Boyle made this a historical rather than a contemporary novel; it sort of has the feel of an E. L. Doctorow to it. Perhaps he was merely seeking Doctorowesque sales, and, indeed, the book was his most successful and was made into a big budget movie, which is supposedly awful. But the stories and themes would work just as well if the novel were set in current society. Dupes are still out there looking for that quick fix and sharpies are still out there getting rich off of their delusions. One hardly knows whether to be reassured or depressed at the basic intransigence of human nature.
POWELLS.COM INTERVIEWS: T. C. BOYLE
Book-related and General Links:
-T. Coraghessan Boyle Home Page
-FEATURED AUTHOR: (NY Times)
-T.C. Boyle: About the Author and His Works
-ESSAY: What is this Bee? Reading Lessons (T. Coraghessan Boyle, LA Weekly)
-EXCERPT: Chapter One of RIVEN ROCK By T. Coraghessan Boyle
-REVIEW: of MASON & DIXON By Thomas Pynchon (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of PICTURING WILL By Ann Beattie (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: QUINN'S BOOK By William Kennedy (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of A WOMAN NAMED DROWN By Padgett Powell (T. Coraghessan Boyle, NY Times Book Review)
-INTERVIEW : A conversation with T. Coraghessan Boyle The author of "The Tortilla Curtain" and "A Friend of the Earth" describes our barren, condo-filled future (Gregory Daurer, Salon)
-INTERVIEW:(Laura Reynolds Adler, Book Page)
-INTERVIEW: AT BREAKFAST WITH: T. Coraghessan Boyle; Biting the Hand That Once Fed Battle Creek (Molly O'Neill, NY Times)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW: (Michael Feldman, Whaddaya Know?, NPR)
-PROFILE: Rolling Boyle (Tad Friend, NY Times Magazine)
-BIO: (Matthew Henry)
-T. Coraghessan Boyle Resource Page
-ESSAY: Haste in the Short Stories of T.C. Boyle (Matt Giuliano)
-ESSAY: BYE-BYE AMERICAN PIE (Nick Gillespie, Reason)
-REVIEW: of THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE By T. Coraghessan Boyle (Jane Smiley, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: Robert Towers: Enigma Variations, NY Review of Books
The Music of Chance by Paul Auster
East Is East by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Traffic and Laughter by Ted Mooney
-REVIEW: of Riven Rock (Peter Kurth, Salon)
-REVIEW: of Riven Rock (Alan Gottlieb, Denver Post)
-REVIEW: of Without a Hero (David Edelman, Baltimore City Paper)
-REVIEW : of A Friend of the Earth : In Dark Days, the Human Hyena Has the Last Laugh : Historically, T. Coraghessan Boyle's heroes have tended to elicit contempt or pity, not sympathy or insight. But in "A Friend of the Earth," he manages to be funny and touching, antic and affecting, all at the same time. (NY Times Book Review)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd