Kellogg's 'Road to Wellville' isn't paved with just corn flakes

April 25, 1993|By James Gordon Bennett

THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE.

T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Viking.

` 476 pages. $22.50. It's every satirist's dream not only to happen upon the perfect sitting duck but to blow it clean out of the water. The subject of T. Coraghessan Boyle's fifth novel, America's obsession with the gastronomically correct diet, couldn't be more commodious to the author's skewering wit. The result is a sumptuous comic feast.

Set in 1907 at the Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium of founder Dr. John Harvey Kellogg ("the impresario, the overseer, the presiding genius of it all"), "The Road to Wellville" chronicles the tortured lives of several of the famous health spa's privileged clients. Like lambs to the slaughter, the rich flock to its right-thinking regimen of vegetarianism and self-improvement. Wracked with guilt from a lifetime of abusing their gastrointestinal tracts, they submit willingly to every harebrained dietary cure-all devised by the good doctor.

Only in America could you build a torture chamber in the wilds of Michigan, call it a health retreat and attract the likes of Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, Adm. Richard M. Byrd and Upton Sinclair. And who better qualified to oversee its patients' nutritional well-being than the inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter? These are the historical facts, and Mr. Boyle serves them up on a silver platter.

But he has the most fun with Kellogg himself, who, "preaching dietary restraint and the simple life, . . . eased overweight housewives and dyspeptic businessmen along the path to enlightenment and recovery." Ever sensitive to bad publicity, the doctor keeps a watchful eye on his win/loss column.

"Severe cases -- the cancerous, the moribund, the mentally unbalanced and the disfigured -- were rejected." As cagey as any Fortune 500 CEO, Kellogg understands that his patrons "tended to be of a certain class, and they really had no interest in sitting across the dining table from the plebeian or the pedestrian or those who had the bad grace to be truly and dangerously ill."

Enter Will and Eleanor Lightbody -- he of the clogged colon and sour stomach, a "bundle of bones and extruded nerves," and she still grief-stricken from the sudden death of their baby girl. Even with thousands of other wealthy hypochondriacs shambling about the halls of the sanitarium, the doctor's "ironclad infallible airtight" memory never fails him. He would coldly size her up as he sized up each of his paying boarders: "Lightbody, Eleanor. Caucasian, female. Twenty . . . twenty-eight years of age. Peterskill, New York. Neurasthenia, autointoxication, loss of child."

The Lightbodys put themselves in the Chief's hands. Unhappily, this entailed strict adherence to a five-enemas-a-day plan. The

doctor had discovered on a trip to Africa that "apes moved their bowels almost continuously. Practically every mouthful they took was accompanied by a complementary evacuation."

This led to one of the great healer/inventor's proudest discoveries: "the need, the necessity, the imperative of assisting the bowel mechanically to undo the damage wrought upon it by civilization. Hence, five enemas a day, minimum."

For Will, it will not be a pleasant stay.

Charlie Ossining has come to town to clean up in a different way. For a would-be breakfast food tycoon, "this was his opportunity and this was the place. Battle Creek, the Biggest Little City in the U.S.A., Cereal Bowl of the World, Foodtown." But the good times are never quite Charlie's and eventually, like the Lightbodys, he'll find himself squirming under the doctor's thumb.

They will all be rescued by an unlikely anti-Christ: George Kellogg, the apostle of health's blackmailing adopted son and demon seed extraordinaire. John Kellogg has come to the conclusion that he and his wife "should have left him in the shack where they found him, should have left him to starve and wither till the light faded from his eyes and the gums drew back from his lips. It was a terrible thing for a man of healing to think, but there it was."

The doctor should have listened to himself, for George ultimately runs amok in the sanitarium and all plot lines converge hysterically on his vengeful act.

Mr. Boyle has his conspicuous influences. The inevitable literary comparisons here (the dust jacket being the first to succumb) are to Dickens and Evelyn Waugh. But these are demonstrably his betters.

His cast of Dickensian-like characters pales in comparison: Although often as flashy and diverting as sandwich boards, they possess as little depth. These are paste-ups, props for Mr. Boyle's razzle-dazzle prose. And if at times the tones take on a Waugh-like tint, his palette has none of the great man's darker hues. Mr. Boyle's colorful canvas shares more the sweeping brush strokes of a Tom Wolfe.

But we are a nation blinded by TV and visually impaired as readers. Mr. Boyle, ever the pedagogue, would have us learn the golden mean in matters of the heart and mind (not to mention the alimentary canal). However, subtlety and characterization may be the hallmarks of high art, but they are low-concept. Mr. Boyle, as hip as they come, desperately wants us to get the picture.

But what a picture it is. T. C. Boyle is the P. T. Barnum of contemporary fiction, and "The Road to Wellville" is as bustling in subplot as any three-ring circus. If T. C. promises more than he delivers, well, so what? As his mentor P. T. reminds us, there's a candidate for Wellville born every minute. But cheer up: The author's prolific enough that it's unlikely that you'll be the last one taken in by this genius huckster.

Mr. Bennett, author of "My Father's Geisha," teaches writing at Louisiana State University. His second novel, "The Moon Stops Here," will be published by Doubleday later this year.

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