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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow

Eugene Henderson resembles a description of actor Brian Dennehy
Book Review
Henderson the Rain King (1959)
 by Saul Bellow

  You can tell when an artist has achieved financial stability because the work rate goes way down.  The percentage of artists who continue to turn out top flight works year after year in the period after they've achieved financial stability is a small percentage of financially successful artists, who are of course a tiny, tiny percentage of total people devoted full or part time to an artistic endeavor.   For Saul Bellow, that threshold was reached in 1953, when The Adventures of Augie March was published.  Augie March won the national book award and sold buckets, securing Bellow the kind of financial stability that allowed him to take several years to write and publish Seize the Day (1957), itself a novella.  Henderson the Rain King followed in '59.  It achieved success on a par with Augie March.

  For the first time, Bellow takes his action outside of the western hemisphere (Augie March had scenes said in the interior of Mexico.)  His hero, Eugene Henderson, is a larger-than-life type of fellow, think Brian Dennehy   Henderson is an unhappy rich white guy, on his second wife, his second batch of kids, aimlessly raising pigs on his families spread in Danbury Connecticut.   He resembles nothing so much as an 18th century English Aristocrat, the kind who didn't attend school or do anything except hunt and collect rents from their estate.  Bellow has updated the type- Henderson attended Harvard and flirts with the idea of returning to school to become a Doctor.  

  Like, Augie March, which integrated two centuries of bildgungsroman into a particular American milieu, Henderson the Rain King traverses the history of literature for elements while also making an indelibly contemporary statement.  Timely and timeless at the same time, that's literature for you.  On a whim, Henderson decides to travel to Africa, where he hires a guide and hikes out into the bush of Central Africa- it sounds like the Central African Republic or perhaps Southern Chad.   In the bush, he encounters two different African tribes, both with western educated leaders.

 His encounters with these leaders constitutes the core of the book, and both Kings are foils in the sense of an 18th century philosophical discourse.  Henderson is repeatedly asked what he is doing out in the bush, and his answers, and actual experiences end up being something like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness crossed with Monty Python.  It's impossible to treat Henderson as other than a comic novel.  The description of Africans and their leaders aren't insulting, but they are hardly realistic.   Africa is like a a psychic projection of Henderson, like the whole thing could be taking place inside his head at a mental hospital.


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