Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Road To Wellville (T.C. Boyle)

This was my second T.C. Boyle book (the first I read, "The Tortilla Curtain" was one of the books I taught my 12th grade English Leistungkurse (honors course, basically) while I was teaching in Germany a few years ago. Because it was one I taught, I've probably read it through at least 8 times, not to mention several study guides on it, so reading this one was a completely different experience for me - reading strictly for enjoyment!). The first, and most obvious, similarity was Boyle's rather verbose writing style - which isn't to say I don't thoroughly enjoy it; his ability to play with the words is both inspiring and pleasurable, not to mention a good exercise in vocabulary.

The second greatest similarity I noticed was the pace of the book. The slow, gradual build-up to the ultimate climax in the last 50 pages or so - an almost frantic, all-over-the-place, hectic climax for each character, but each intertwined with the others - the revelations of the overlapping stories becoming ultimately apparent. Maybe it was because I was expecting the pace to be similar to "The Tortilla Curtain," but I found myself often urging the story's progression and frequently wondering what the true conflict would be. Although this made for a slight sense of anticipation, I also found it somewhat frustrating to be 90% finished with the book before being introduced to the main conflict.

The book is set in the early 1900's, amid the newest health-craze - the boom of breakfast cereal. The estranged brother of the famous Kellogg (as in, Corn Flakes) is the mastermind of "the Sanitarium," a mecca of healthy, "biologic," and "physiologic" living, in which the wealthy (and dreadfully ill) patients are subjected to no less than 5 enemas a day, a strict vegetarian dietary plan (with extremes such a "the milk diet," during which the patient drinks 4 oz of milk every 15 min during the day, and once an hour, on the hour, during the night - for weeks on end), and various other calisthenics, exercise regimes, and nearly torturous medical procedures (such as the sinusoidal treatment - during which the patient places his arms and legs inside big tubs of gently electrified water - which ends, in one tertiary character's case, as disastrously as the reader could expect). I think the truly fascinating part of this education in early turn-of-the-last-centuries medical knowledge is learning how accurate Boyle's descriptions actually are. In my investigative experiences, I also learned quite a bit about obscure and otherwise obsolete diseases of the time, as well.

Although I didn't find as much humor in this book as many of the reviewers conveyed they had, I did enjoy it overall. Again, there weren't clear pro- and antagonists, but rather, I often found myself wondering which characters I was supposed to be siding with. Both of the main characters were quite sympathetic, almost to a fault. Because of the this and the long-in-coming climax, I had several moments of just wishing the worst for each of these two men in the hopes that it would just end their struggles (and my growing impatience).

With it's somewhat accurate historical fiction setting, this book was an interesting insight into a past world I would have otherwise remained completely oblivious to, but was pleased to share in through Boyle's unique and inviting style.

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