Wednesday, May 12, 2010

BOOKS: The Road To Wellville by T.C. Boyle

don't rock the boat, fish quietly while it sinks

fanatics, followers & blind  belief

Pompous quacks, big business chicanery, na'r-do-well sons, accidental electrocution, nudist picnics, infidelity, arson and the unrepentant human willingness to believe, no matter what - The Road To Wellville T.C. Boyle's hysterical historical fiction work has it all.

On The Road To Wellville, it is not only the characters but also the reader who must sustain a “suspension of disbelief,”  in order to continue page to page, enjoying this wild and crazy saga - all the more unbelievable because it is based in a true story.  Major characters and a number of minor ones are all being duped by someone. And they are complicit in the deception. Ask any con man, the mark wants to believe. And when someone offers us a path to good health - we want to believe that too - to hell with the evidence. (Otherwise no one would be selling homeopathic remedies these days.)

In fact, -- the road to human well-being is most certainly not found on the road to “The San”  the Sanatorium in Battle Creek.  – it's the Kalamazoo  Road that the emergent and unlikely hero Will Lightbody impatiently traverses to finally take action, to stand up for himself, his wants and his wife - that is the road to heath and sanity.

As his name would suggest Mr. Will Lightbody, Eleanor's “gawk” of a husband, is a lightweight in the will department, choosing repeatedly to ignore things that would send most sane folks running for safety or at least for to the phone to call a good litigator.  Mr. Lightbody allows himself to be ignored and put off by his wife, literally starved and cowed by Dr. Kellog and his variously persuasive nurses, despite the mounting list of mishaps.  After a truely bizarre electrocution scene in the sinusoidal baths, Lightbody immediately forgets his own courageous action in saving Alfred Woodbine the attendant.  His own quick thinking and courage are set aside, and the whole event  frightens him enough to inspire a drinking bout and a meat-eating rebellion.  Yet, even after pointedly rubbing Dr. Kellogg's nose in the messy fact of Praetz's death, Lightbody still, unbelievably, allows this self-righteous socialite quack to send him for an indefinite punitive mechanical enema:
"A blister, swelling and swelling till it bursts – that was Dr. Kellogg. He was blind, he was deaf, he was a god on a cloud: the name of Homer Praetz had never been uttered. Such impudence didn't merit  responses.[...] “put him [Will Lightbody] on the enema machine until further notice.” 

A little later Lightbody lets Kellogg send him under the knife - intestinal surgery to remove an imaginary “Kellogg's Kink” !

Yet no one, including the great doctor Kellogg is immune to the need to believe the improbable. He never once suspects that his son George burned the  first Sanatorium building years earlier, and he immediately has faith in glowing scientific reports of radium, (never mind if a patient or two keels over), and he believes his own overblown public reputation. He is also duped by fellow vegetarian fanatic Badger and The Manipulative Therapy doctor as are quite a number of satisfied women, including Eleanor Lightbody.

Besides The Manipulative Therapy nudist picnic, one of the most interesting sideshows is George Kellogg, the filthy, drunken adopted son, the “err”' apparent. He is the salient inconvenient consequence of “Dr. Vegetable's” actions and philosophy. George, the ugly underside of the “Dr. Anus” is the potential terminus of some rather lucrative illusions.  Supposedly the bad seed, his need for, and to torment the Doctor is acute; the essential quality of their relation is blame rather than deception.

George's opposite is the aspiring Charlie Ossining, son of the gatekeeper, taken in by the wealthy Mrs. Hookstratten.  He wants so desperately to be an entrepreneur that he is duped endlessly by Bender despite  an incredible array of evidence that the man is a shark. Bender dupes Ossining into duping Mrs. Hookstratten and Will Lightbody.

Yet in the end, Ossining persists and eventually succeeds in business. His wealthy Auntie Amaelia Hookstratten was after all, a reality “hook” for straitening out the young Ossining. Her prodigy, though estranged, finally succeeds and makes the perfect tonic. George, (Kellog Jr.) the perfect ingrown hair does not.

The last meeting between Dr. Kellogg and G. Kellogg Jr - with fire, white wolf, chimp, torn clothing, insults and  bottled excrement unleashed - is pure slapstick melodrama. No wonder they made a movie out of it. George's death is also the perfect METAPHOR for what the Dr. is doing to his patients: drowning them in stinking, slippery fanatic unfounded so-called-truth. They, like George could have escaped, but they prefer  blind belief  to figuring it all out for themselves.

--- M.M. (Mar) Walker
author of Inverse Origami - the art of unfolding,
editor and writer at The Metaphor.atorium
and former editor of Bent Pin Quarterly.
originally written in November of 2003