My affection for books — not just the illuminating wonders of the printed word, but the appeal of smartly designed artifacts of literature — has sometimes led me to find certain titles absolutely irresistible. I had a few motivations leading me to purchase The Road to Wellville, the 1993 novel by the author then billed as T. Coraghessan Boyle, not least was the promise of an upcoming major motion picture by the time the fictionalized story of John Harvey Kellogg’s early twentieth century fixation of questionable health practices arrived in paperback. Fresh off my tenure as co-host of a weekly movie review program on the radio, I had a mild compulsion for racing through novels that were on their way to the big screen. But what really caused me to cave in and part with some of my few dollars in exchange for a copy of the book was the cheeky packaging of the trade paperback edition, which slipped The Road to Wellville inside a box of thin cardboard made to resemble a container of breakfast cereal, the very product that helped Kellogg make his considerable fortune, which in turn funded the construction and operation of the sanitarium where the novel took place. I didn’t quite fall prey to the cliched flaw of judging a book by its cover, but it was a more robust equivalent.
Luckily for me, the ingenuity of the packaging was on pace with the spiky brilliance of the novel. Boyle drew convincingly from the historical record while investing the narrative with cunning and wit. There was mild satire to the work, but never so much that it subsumed the compelling honesty of the storytelling. The humor presided in tandem with proper conviction to the integrity of the characters and their trying situations. Boyle also pulled off the fine trick of grounding the historical fiction in its era and investing the writing with a more modern snap. He wasn’t intrusive in deploying his strong voice, but a clear authorial point of view came through. As I was entering my post-collegiate years and starting to make my reading selections on the basis of my own choices rather than adherence to syllabi, The Road to Wellville was one of my first significant pleasures.
I cycled back to Boyle repeatedly over the years, usually with long enough gaps between that his writing always had a jarring freshness, reminding me anew as to why I raved about it in the first place. I have a sharp, specific memory, for example, of reading his 2003 novel, Drop City, and internally chastising myself for waiting too long between return trips to the vivid valley of his words. The cleverness, the cynicism, the unshowy yet dazzling command of language were exactly the qualities I actively sought out in novels. As thrilling as it is to discover new writers, Boyle consistently reasserts himself as proof that many of the wordsmiths already taking up real estate on my bookshelf need not be left behind.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.