Friday, October 19, 2007

THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE by T. Coraghessan Boyle

The Book: T. Coraghessan Boyle, THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE. Viking, 1993; first edition, inscribed: "Ellen: Con amistad, T. Coraghessan Boyle, 5/11/93." Fine condition.
First read: 1993
Owned since: 1993

Certain authors own large stretches of real estate on my shelves. Maeve Binchy takes up a foot simply because each novel is three inches thick. Other writers who have at least 12 inches' worth of my shelf space include Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Stephen King, and - yes - T. Coraghessan Boyle.

John Schramm sent me an e-mail last week to recommend Boyle's Budding Prospects, which I do not currently own because I gave my copy to my brother Ed. If I had to pick a favorite Boyle novel, it would probably be World's End, but this is the novel I'd recommend to anyone who's new to him. (Less said the better about the movie version, which is dreadful.)

The Road to Wellville is a novel about the turn-of-the-century health spa run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who invented breakfast cereal. Kellogg was obsessed with the mechanics of digestion, and believed that constipation (which he called "auto-intoxication") was the source of all human ailments. He also believed in the restorative power of radium therapy, electroshock treatments, and celibacy.

Boyle takes this fascinating source material and turns it into a tragicomedy of manners, a cautionary tale about health faddism. Young marrieds Will and Eleanor Lightbody arrive at Dr. Kellogg's spa in search of treatment for Will's dyspepsia, and nearly destroy their marriage and themselves. What I love about Wellville, and about most of Boyle's work, is that his characters are so earnest -- and while Boyle invites us to mock them, he also respects that earnestness, and his characters usually get endings happier than you might expect.

I don't remember where this book was signed; it might have been a reading at the Folger Library, where Boyle is a favorite visitor, or it might have been at an event sponsored by Chapters bookstore.

What I Read This Week

Mark Billingham, Death Message. I admire this series so much that I bought the UK edition, rather than waiting for the American one -- but this book is not the strongest entry. Detective Inspector Tom Thorne chases down a man who is killing everyone he holds responsible for the hit-and-run deaths of his girlfriend and son. The case turns out to be connected to some unfinished business from The Burning Girl. In fact, the end of this book wouldn't make much sense if you hadn't read The Burning Girl; so if you missed that one, start there, and wait for the US edition of Death Message sometime next year.

Sarah Gallick, The Big Book of Women Saints. Hey, everybody needs a role model. This book is exactly what the title says: capsule profiles of 365 women who have been canonized or beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. All the heavy hitters are here -- Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich -- as well as some of the more recently beatified, such as Saint Edith Stein and the Blessed Mother Theresa. The format prohibits too much detail about each woman, and I'd have liked to read a little more about some of their failings (Teresa of Avila's notorious temper, Saint Monica's alcoholism), but what's here is fascinating.

Stuart Woods, Shoot Him if He Runs. I felt obligated to read this book, as it was a gift from the author. The Stone Barrington novels are usually good for a couple of hours of guilty entertainment, but this installment's just tedious. Stone Barrington and Holly Barker go to the Caribbean island of St. Mark's in search of master criminal Teddy Fay, but the book bogs down in flagrant product placement and deadly conversations about airplanes and bureaucracy.


Anonymous said...

"I have always been a quitter."

That's the first line of _Budding Prospects_, and it's worth mentioning that my sister gave me her copy of the book because she suspected I could strongly sympathize with that sentiment. In fairness, she gave me the book in the summer of 1993, when I was just out of undergrad, unemployed and not looking for work too dilligently, and mostly wondering why I hadn't been struck dead by lightning within days of earning my bachelor's degree. Which had been the sum total of my life's plan up until that point. (I'm still looking for another, if you're curious.)

I no longer own _Budding Prospects_. I did like it, and I did identify mighty strongly with the book's protagonist, who quits a deadend job in San Francisco to become a pot farmer outside of Fresno. "The farm was the only thing I never quit." He should have.

My friend Adam F., who I lost touch with years ago, had the book last I knew. He had actually quit a job as an agricultural extension agent to become a 'shroom farmer in his younger days. He has since become a foremost authority on the breeding of honey bee queens. He really loved _Budding Prospects_.


Anonymous said...

God, I remember that opening line, too...

Speaking of "World's End," I remember in 1983, shortly after having read the book, driving around the outskirts of Kansas City MO in a blizzard and getting lost, and suddenly realizing that I was at the intersection of Truman and Van Brunt streets. I have often thought I should seek out that intersection again and photograph the streetsign and send it to Mr. Boyle.

Your pal

Scott P.

norby said...

Bad news Clair-I've heard that there isn't going to be an US edition of Death Message. It's from a pretty reliable source so I trust it.

I agree though, Death Message isn't the strongest of the series. I personally think The Burning Girl is the best.

AnswerGirl said...

Wow, I'm amazed -- I thought the Thorne books did pretty well over here.

Well then, I guess people will have to order the UK edition after all...

Archimedes Principle said...

Budding Prospects is one of those books I feel compelled to press into peoples hands and beg them to read it. I'll be that guy button-holing commuters on the tube home about this, I can just see it. Only a matter of time.