Two cultural advents, health spas and breakfast cereals, get the laugh treatment in The Road to Wellville. Employing detailed research and an astonishingly rich vocabulary, author T. C. Boyle takes us on a tour of Battle Creek, Michigan in 1907, where John Harvey Kellogg battles to rescue his wealthy clients from their self-destructive dining habits.
Boyle has grounded his novel in the true story of Kellogg, whose name and that of his rival C. W. Post still identify the most prominent brands of cereal on the American market. The fictional characters include Will and Eleanor Lightbody, a couple with health problems, and Charlie Ossining, a young investor hoping to make his fortune in cereal stocks. While the Lightbodys find their marriage under strain in an assault of unpalatable food, invasive body therapies, and Kellogg’s evangelism, Ossining falls under the spell of a business partner whose promises of financial success bring him only hardship and frustration.
The humor in this story lies in the extremes to which the characters submit themselves. Eleanor becomes so brainwashed that she subsists gladly on a diet that Will, an alcoholic with a burning stomach, endures only for the sake of their marriage: psyllium seeds, nuts, seaweed, endless doses of milk, and a profusion of grapes. Even worse are the daily humiliations of enemas, colon massages, vibrotherapy, hot gloves, and laughing exercises.
Privately, Kellogg struggles with his own problems. Having established himself as a health messiah, he finds himself at the mercy of his adopted son George, a drunken renegade who appears at the worst moments to tarnish his father’s image. Ossining, meanwhile, suffers his own humiliation, living in a slovenly boarding house while his partner spends their money entertaining potential investors at luxurious dinners.
All these conflicts build to a series of crises that kept me turning the pages for more. Unfortunately, I cannot give this novel the five star rating it would have earned without Boyle’s unpalatable sex scenes, as well as his occasional profanities and other offensive words. If you can endure these faults, you will find The Road to Wellville an entertaining look at human tendencies to faddishness and self-delusion.