Judith Ann Moriarty
Retro Read

The Road to Wellville

By - May 9th, 2010 04:00 am
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My Victorian grandmother was a firm believer in the power of the enema, or make that enemas, without which she couldn’t navigate her days. I always wondered why her daughter (my mom) crunched religiously on Grape Nuts each and every day. Years later, I think I’ve discovered the answer in T.C. Boyle’s  The Road to Wellville. Seems that in the long long ago, pamphlets by that name were tucked into each and every box of Grape Nuts.

Bear with me. The urge to purge is nothing new. Why only yesterday, a friend of mine was moaning that prior to his colonoscopy he was prescribed commodious quantities of laxatives designed to give the physicians a clear shot at his innards. And readers, you have only to flip on the tube to discover at least one channel where an oily looking pitchman (reminds me of a rat) claims the road to health is hi, ho, through ridding oneself of toxins.

What goes in must come out. Or so sayeth gurus of the cleansing kind. Move on, Metamucil.

Recently, I was browsing Boswell Books in desperation, having run out of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels. Although she’s brilliant, her tales are depressing and I was in need of a good laugh. Before I tackled Wellville, I plunged into 800 pages of Boyle’s collected short stories and then on to his more recent collection: Wild Child.

Then I hit The Road to Wellville, a fictionalized romp about the late Victorian mania for total wellness. If you had bucks, the Battle Creek sanitarium run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was where you headed. For a price, this inventor of the corn flake and peanut butter and some seventy-five other gastronomically correct foods would unload not only your colon, but your bank account as well. For example, there’s Nurse Graves (shades of Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), who administers five daily enemas and a whole lot more to one Will Lightbody, while his wife takes a sexier cure under the practiced hands and knowing thumb of her personal physician (who perfects the massage mania by practicing on the wombs of randy ladies).

Bend over. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons

The cast of characters is oftimes Dickensian and as I read and laughed out loud, I realized that my three favorite authors, John Irving, Oates, and add to that, T.C. Boyle, all ground through the Iowa Writers’ School in Iowa City.

There’s nothing like a fabulously entertaining writer who knows how to keep things moving. Here’s an excerpt.

Doctor: This is a prescription sir…it’s perfectly indigestible. Like eating a broom, but that broom will sweep you clean, Mr. Lightbody….sweep you clean.

Will Lightbody: The milk diet?

Doctor: Oh yes, I’m sorry. The yogurt, for the most part, will be entering you from the posterior end, in a sort of two-pronged assault, as it were.

I’m a dedicated reader and may I say that the wrap-up in Wellville is the finest I’ve ever read, and that includes the end zone in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Categories: Books

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