A whole lot of flakes in Battle Creek

Monday Books

July 19, 1993|By Dave Edelman

THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE. By T. Coraghessan Boyle. Viking Penguin. 476 pages. $22.50. ANY doctor who prescribed five enemas a day, sexual abstinence and high doses of radium for an ulcer would be kicked out of town before sunset.

Unless, of course, that doctor was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his town was Battle Creek, Mich., in 1907. There, Kellogg, the self-proclaimed health messiah and inventor of corn flakes and peanut butter, reigned supreme. For more than 20 years, Kellogg's sanitarium devoted to "scientific living" attracted the best and brightest of Americans looking for the magic cure. Celebrities like Thomas Edison, Upton Sinclair and Henry Ford tried Kellogg's prescription, which included all of the above as well as strict vegetarianism, electric shock, laugh therapy and more.

This preposterous medical regimen and the man who inspired it serve as the subjects of T. Coraghessan Boyle's latest novel, "The Road to Wellville." Under Mr. Boyle's pen, Kellogg is reduced to a shallow, self-serving hypocrite more intent on self-promotion than on healing the sick.

Yet Mr. Boyle, who is also the author of "East Is East" and the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning "World's End," doesn't content himself with such an easy target as Kellogg. Instead, he uses Kellogg's antics as the basis for a hilarious satire about people still abundant in our society today: holier-than-thou healthmongers, the con men who profit from them and the suckers they deceive.

"Wellville's" protagonist, Will Lightbody, has been dragged out to Battle Creek by his bored wife, Eleanor. She convinces the hesitant Will that Kellogg's program can cure both his stomach ailment and her frayed nerves. Soon Will is snared in a retreat full of eccentric vegetarians. His stomach isn't improving at all. He moves from the milk diet to the grape diet and back again, all without success.

Meanwhile, Eleanor indulges in every half-baked therapy from starvation diets to nude sunbathing to "womb manipulation." Kellogg and his cronies convince her that it might take a while for her nerves to recover from those evil steaks and poisonous alcoholic beverages she used to enjoy. It might even take years.

A parallel plot chronicles the misfortunes of would-be breakfast food tycoon Charlie P. Ossining. The young Ossining arrives in Battle Creek ready to make a million dollars marketing Per-Fo Corn Flakes, the ultimate nutritious breakfast food. Unfortunately, Ossining makes a mistake: He takes on con man Goodloe Bender as a partner. Bender is soon off spending the company's money on "business dinners" and "investment opportunities."

Luckily, the Per-Fo Company finds an ace in the hole. The drunken, disowned son of John Harvey Kellogg agrees to attach his prestigious family name to the Per-Fo product. Son George is Kellogg's Achilles heel, a besotted embarrassment to all the doctor's claims to progressive and rational living. He's the one thing that Kellogg can't control and can't get rid of.

If there's a problem with "Wellville's" diagnosis that society's sickness is an obsession with health, it's that the author comes up with no effective recovery plan. At book's end, Will Lightbody's sudden reversion to "the way things should be" is almost as disturbing as Kellogg's brand of "scientific living."

But Mr. Boyle's sprawling, laugh-out-loud novel should be required reading for every physician in training at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Wellville" will help these men and women think about the quackery routinely passed off as medical science and all the cheap moralistic tactics used to keep us believing in it.

Dave Edelman graduated from Johns Hopkins University in May. He writes from Baltimore.

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