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T. Coraghessan Boyle: The Road to Wellville

Boyle, of course, loves to satirise the foibles of his country and in this novel, he picks on an endearing foible seemingly starting up at the beginning of the twentieth century but still alive and well into the twenty-first century, namely the health fad. We meet the famous – John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake and C W Post inventor of Grape-Nuts and other staples of the breakfast table and writer of the original pamphlet The Road to Wellville, both of whom started out in the health fad industry.

Much of the novel is set in Kellogg’s sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1907-1908. (Post worked for Kellogg there before branching out on his own.) Kellogg is convinced that the problem with modern man is that he does not shit enough and he is determined to change this. He develops a five-day cure consisting of lots of enemas and no caffeine, alcohol or sex. Strange baths and even stranger diets also feature strongly in this cure. As with contemporary fads, the rich and famous take to this cure, and the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison benefit (?) from it. Will Lightbody, however, is a fictional character who comes to Kellogg’s sanatorium not because he wants to but because his beloved wife, Eleanor, want him to. Eleanor is a health fad freak and has already harmed Will with a home-bought cure. By the time they get to Battle Creek, Will is not in good shape and ready for Kellogg’s regimen, which he endures reluctantly and critically. When his wife seems to enjoy the manipulation treatment more than she perhaps should, Will’s scepticism grows. While Will suffers, Boyle lays it on with all the various treatments and their often less than successful results.

Will is critical but he is not the only enemy of Kellogg and his treatments. Kellogg has several rivals, including the already mentioned C W Post but, in this novel, it is Charlie Ossining who features. Charlie had met the Lightbodys on the way to Battle Creek and their paths will cross again in the usual Boyle somewhat over-the-top but hilariously funny set pieces. Charlie has invented a new cereal – Per-Fo (as in Perfect Food) – and, with the help of a legacy, he plans to develop and market it. Things do not, of course, turn out well for him. With a partner called Bender, how could they? The third problem for Kellogg and, ultimately, the greatest, is his adopted son, George. George, one of many children adopted by Kellogg, is not the picture of health that his siblings are. Indeed, he is just the opposite. Moreover, he bitterly resents having been used, as he sees it, by Kellogg, for his health experiments and is determined to take his revenge. George’s revenge, Charlie’s financial problems and Will’s marital problems all converge at the end in a wonderful Boylesque mayhem, to make this already enjoyable book even more enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Viking