Penguin Books, 1959, 352 pages
Bellow evokes all the rich colour and exotic customs of a highly imaginary Africa in this comic novel about a middle-aged American millionaire who, seeking a new, more rewarding life, descends upon an African tribe. Henderson's awesome feats of strength and his unbridled passion for life earns him the admiration of the tribe - but it is his gift for making rain that turns him from mere hero into messiah. A hilarious, often ribald story, Henderson the Rain King is also a profound look at the forces that drive a man through life.
Crossposted to books1001.
Thanks to books1001, I have now experienced the manly triumvirate of Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, and Saul Bellow. I guess I'm only missing Norman Mailer to complete my experience.
This is another one of those books by a clearly great writer, which is full of large characters vibrantly realized, and some gems of writing that could only come from a genius, yet the premise is one that a reader of early 21st century sensibilities cannot help but wince at. That said, I liked this book a lot more than I liked The Human Stain or In the Heart of the Country, both of which left me feeling dirty. Philip Roth writes with a smirk, J.M Coetzee writes with a sneer, but Saul Bellow writes with a snort. His protagonist is more aware of his own frailties and that he is, ultimately, a puny human creature that the universe might treat kindly or cruelly but ultimately will only laugh at.
"I am a true adorer of life, and if I can't reach as high as the face of it, I plant my kiss somewhere lower down. Those who understand will require no further explanation."
Eugene Henderson is a millionaire (this book being written back in 1959 when being a millionaire was still a big deal), a very large, loud, hard-drinking, alternately friendly and melancholy man with a trail of ex-wives and children of whom he is very fond even if he can't remember all of their names, a man who forced his way into the Army and served in World War II even though he was too old, and who now, having one of those bellicose mid-life crises that rich white dudes can afford to have, pops off to Africa to play Ugly American among the colorful natives.
What redeems the story, besides Bellow's prose (which is not at all overwrought, reading straightforwardly and yet so well that it had to be carefully crafted) is that Henderson is, while kind of a jerk (actually, a huge jerk), having a grand time among the noble savages while searching for some vague spiritual fulfillment, likeable. The fact that I could find him likeable, especially after all his stomping and bellowing with his wives, and even after he blows up a tribe's water supply in a well-intentioned clusterfuck that could easily read as a metaphor for well-intentioned American efforts everywhere, was what finally convinced me that Saul Bellow could write and wasn't just engaging in dudely wanking.
"Shall I run back into the desert ... and stay there until the devil has passed out of me and I am fit to meet human kind again without driving it to despair at the first look? I haven't had enough desert yet."
This picaresque adventure almost reads as a bildungsroman, despite the fact that the main character is in his fifties. Henderson is brave, deep, foolish, generous, arrogant, blustery, sensitive, and still finding himself. He has a grand affection and respect for the Africans he meets, but it's a patronizing respect. He's looking for a Magical Negro to teach him about truth and life and the meaning of it all, and he meets several. Saul Bellow's "rich colour and exotic customs of a highly imaginary Africa" is... yeah, pretty highly imaginary. It's definitely not Joseph Conrad's Africa, nor Edgar Rice Burroughs's, but there is a lot of, you know, rain-dancing and spear-chucking and enormous harems of naked big-bootied Amazon babes.
King Dahfu is no primitive, though — he's an educated man seeking wisdom and spirituality his own way, and he leads Henderson on a dangerous quest, terrifying and awing the much bigger, stronger American.
Sometimes I think that pleasure comes only from having your own way, and I couldn't help feeling that this was assimilated by the king from the lions. To have your will, that's what pleasure is, in spite of all the thought that has been done. And he was dragging me along with the power of his personal greatness, because he was so brilliant and had a strong gift of life, manifested in the smoky, bluish trembling of his extra shadow. Because he was bound to have his way. And therefore I lumbered after him, without a weapon for protection unless you counted the helmet, unless I could pull down these green pants and bag the animal in them—they might almost have been roomy enough for that.
I did, ultimately, like this book, as it's a study of a man's dissatisfactions more than an African adventure, and while some of Henderson's introspection was belabored in a manner meant to be studied at length by literature professors, it was all quite readable. And I appreciated Bellow's little gems of writing throughout the book.
"We are funny creatures. We don't see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire."
Apparently Counting Crows' Rain King is named after the title character.
Verdict: I did not love it, but I liked it, enough that I would try Saul Bellow again. Henderson the Rain King is a thoughtful but comic adventure as a man who's already seen the world and been there, done that tries to figure out what he's missing and goes dancing with lions in Africa. Largely on the strength of Bellow's prose, I thought this was a book worth reading. So, does it belong on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? Well, I'm convinced you should read at least one of Bellow's books. Not having read any others, I don't know if this is his best work, but he's included on the list seven times. (And has now been reviewed four times!)
My complete list of book reviews.