- Image via Wikipedia
Fort Collins, Colorado selected the author T. C. Boyle for their One Book, One Town event. They chose Tortilla Curtain to read and then celebrate as a community. Unfamiliar with his work, I picked up The Road to Wellville for a few bucks at a used book store.
The prose was erudite and pleonastic from the beginning. There was the usual assortment of characters with their requisite personality quirks, bad habits, flaws and weaknesses both physical and psychological. The plot had plenty of thieving and deceiving and other intriguing facts of interest surrounding the development of the cereal business at the beginning of the twentieth century. So why didn’t I enjoy it more? Because not one of the characters invoked an ounce of empathy. They all came off as flat footed. I never cared about Charles Ossining, the young, up and coming huckster being conned out of his benefactor’s investment. Nor Will Lightbody, an ailing silver spooned sap of a husband and his snobby, manipulative wife, Eleanor. She secretly drugged him with an opium laced drink she bought from Sears and later gets taken in herself by a charlatan ‘womb manipulator’. I certainly didn’t empathize with the real life Dr. Kellogg as he forced yogurt enemas on the sheep that flocked to his vegetarian, anti-sexual cult sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.
For historical fiction to work, like any other form of fiction, there has to be a feeling of connection to at least one of the main characters. The best example I can give is George Garrett’s Death of The Fox. Years ago while flying home after a full week of one night stopover travel and exhausting meetings, I was sitting at the back of a plane, losing myself in the book. The way he described the relationship between two real people, the motivations behind their choices and the emotional consequences of their actions triggered an otherworldly epiphany, like a therapeutic tangent with something bigger than me, and my little world. Great fiction, especially historical fiction, should give the reader a sense of discovery, even if it’s bringing something we already know to the surface.
In contrast The Road to Wellville read more like high brow journalism, something I’d find in Esquire. Big words, and lots of them, but scant on motivational depth. I found myself skimming over large blocks of text to get to the plot points, mainly because the characters seemed mere objects to the story rather than the vessels transporting the meaning and significance of their actions.
For all the nicely turned imagery, skillful prose, and period appropriate vocabulary in The Road to Wellville, it was only slightly memorable, thanks to the yogurt enemas.