BOOK REVIEW / Hygienic Dr Kellogg gets to their bowls: 'The Road to Wellville' - T Coraghessan Boyle: Granta, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE AMERICAN author's middle name is pronounced 'Kur-rag-ih-son', according to Granta's excellent press office, and was assumed purely for marketing reasons. Thomas Boyle appears to be media-wise along the lines of our own much-promoted Will Self, trailing an image of drug use and wacky raggedy-ass alternativeness, while in fact cultivating the right connections and leading a bourgeois married life with steady job, three kids and red BMW in driveway. But where Self's writing is arguably no more than an extension of the image, Boyle's is quite genuine, more in keeping with the solid professional reality.

Tackling the modern obsession with diet and lifespan, The Road to Wellville, his fifth novel, takes an ironic plus ca change view and is set mostly in Dr Kellogg's sanitarium for the rich at Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1907-8. Five enemas a day are the rule, meals in the sumptuous dining room are liable to consist of 'protose patties' and 'gluten mush' besides the famous cornflakes, and attendance at the doctor's lectures on the bacterial horrors of meat is expected.

From New York aboard the Twentieth Century Limited come Will and Eleanor Lightbody, hoping to repair their health and their marriage after the loss of a child, and Charlie Ossining, hoping to make a fortune by setting up yet another breakfast food company in Battle Creek, 'Cereal Bowl of the World'.

Boyle's style is handsome, leisurely and well detailed, in sympathy with the dining car of the great luxury train where these characters meet, and calculated to make the rigours of the Kellogg regime and the business hustle seem already ridiculous, so it is a safe guess that neither Charlie nor the Lightbodies will find the going too easy. Charlie is something of a shyster. His schemes to get rich are inspired by a mail-order scam for 'memory tablets' which he fell for as a lazy schoolboy. But, as that shows, he is something of a sucker too, and he is now in the process of being 'hooked, landed, scaled, gutted, stuffed, roasted, chewed, digested and shat out' himself by a far bigger shyster. And he does try not to cheat the aunt who put up his original business stake. Besides, as Will says, at least Charlie is a 'regular meat-eating beer-drinking cigarette-smoking human being and not some sanitarium monk'.

Dr Kellogg, who dresses in white every day and has 42 children, all adopted because the sex act is so unhygienic and lifesapping, is far more sinister with his well-scrubbed certainties. Boyle is very hard on him. Two of the san's patients are killed, one by the electric bath and one by radiation treatment, and it is all the worse because Boyle makes it so horribly funny.

The Lightbodies are difficult to pin down. Will, a long streak of nothing with an inappropriate, booming 'rainbarrel' voice, keeps veering from feeble dupe to raisonneur to resolute macho type. Eleanor is cracked up to be excitingly distant and complex, and all the men except Dr Kellogg fancy her like mad, but she comes out as a deeply trying neurotic. Fortunately Will develops a hopeless pash for nice Nurse Graves to keep us interested.

Not much happens until near the end, when showdown after showdown ensues in grand succession, but the secure, unforced sense of period is always a pleasure and the comedy of keen social embarrassment - Dr Kellogg shown up by his delinquent son; tycoon Charlie encountering Eleanor while sporting a sandwich board - provides not only laughter but something oddly like an edge-of-the-seat thrill.

To arrange a climax Boyle has a stealthy way of inveigling his characters and readers into a situation which starts out awkward and then turns grotesque before they realise it. Few writers combine so much good childish fun with so much grown-up command of setting and tone.

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