BOOK REVIEW / The health food gravy-train: The Road to Wellville & collected stories - T Coraghessan Boyle: Granta, pounds 14.99 & pounds 9.99
Sunday 24 October 1993
Dr John Harvey Kellogg, real-life inventor of the cornflake (brilliantly marketed by his despised brother, Will), peanut butter, and the electric blanket, was also a fanatical health-guru, founder of a fashionable turn-of-the-century sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, proponent of ludicrous and life-threatening cures (the sinosoidal bath, vibrotherapy, the kinkectomy), author of The Itinerary of a Breakfast and ''Nuts May Save the Race' and father of 42 children, all adopted.
Boyle borrows details of Kellogg's life from Gerald Carson's Cornflake Crusade (1976) and Ronald M Deutsch's happily titled The Nuts Among the Berries (1977). Kellogg, it seems, was as bizarre as the novel suggests, particularly in respect of the clenched bowel. As Boyle claims in the book's coda, the doctor 'received and administered more enemas than any man in history', at least five a day until his death in 1943 at a distressingly vigorous 91. Still, and this is pretty much the novel's theme, who would want such a life? To live so cleanly, without meat, drink, caffeine, tobacco, sex ('even a single discharge of seminal fluid could be fatal') or anything remotely approaching dissipation, is to do dirt on life. 'Seeking health', we learn of one of Kellogg's more devoted female followers, 'she'd found disease and corruption.'
The novel opens on a train, one of several 19th-century touches. Will and Eleanor Lightbody are on their way to Battle Creek in search of health; Charlie Ossining, their unregenerate supper companion (he eats oysters), seeks money, the promised health-food gravy-train. With a dollars 6,000 stake from his rich aunt, Charlie dreams of becoming the next C W Post, inventor of Grape Nuts and Kellogg's hated rival.
What all three characters confront in Battle Creek is an army of hucksters and scam-artists: not just Kellogg and his physiologically correct assistants, but Goodloe Bender, Charlie's 'partner' in business (a breakfast food scam), Lionel Badger, President of the Vegetarian Society of America, nudist and free-love sympathiser, and the mysterious 'Dr' Siegfried Spitzvogel, Badger's friend. Spitzvogel and Badger entice Eleanor ('she didn't want to be thought unprogressive') into 'die handhabung Theraputik' or 'manipulation of the womb', a treatment all the rage among the more adventurous and randy of Dr Kellogg's patients, and one the nimble-fingered Spitzvogel eventually practises outdoors in the nude - sometimes on two patients simultaneously. The otherwise prudish Eleanor leaves these sessions 'glowing'.
This sort of indelicate absurdity is Boyle's stock-in-trade. What he's less good at is moving the story along. While Eleanor falls wholly under Kellogg's spell, Will and Charlie doubt their gurus from the start. Yet neither seems able to break free. This inertia - a sort of narrative constipation - is eventually irritating as well as implausible, especially in the novel's middle section, 'Therapeusis', with its parade of interchangeable comic set-pieces. Though the alternating plot strands neatly intertwine, the novel lacks narrative pressure.
It also lacks developed characters, something the high realist touches lead one to expect. Though the novel's principal dupes, even Eleanor, finally see the light, no one else changes much or has anything but the most rudimentary interior life. Kellogg's scapegrace son, George, for example, looks at first like an occasion for paternal remorse and repentance, a Dickens child-victim. George, though, remains foul throughout, occasioning only the briefest twinges of conscience on Kellogg's part. As a consequence, Kellogg himself remains fixed and mechanical, no more than a collection of tics and traits.
These failings are less in evidence in Boyle's Collected Stories, which are mostly one-joke affairs (the secret love of Ike and Nina Khrushchev, the chimp who reads Chomsky). Here, indelicacy blooms. Though The Road to Wellville makes rather a meal of the repulsive food Kellogg prescribes his patients - nutrolene and jelly, protose patties, vegetable milk - nothing in the novel equals the dinner served to the narrator of 'The Descent of Man'. This dish, a notorious Eastern delicacy, consists of the brains of a still-living monkey, its exposed cranium sticking through a hole in the centre of the table, the rest of the monkey hidden underneath. As the appalled narrator watches his girlfriend dig in, he tells us 'below the table, in the dark, a tiny fist clutched at my pantleg'. Readers with a taste for this sort of thing will find much in Boyle's writing to chew on.
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