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BookReview: Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain King

book by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, who died in 2005, was one of the great American writers of the post-war period, among a group (including Mailer, Cheever, Vonnegut; later: Heller, Roth, Updike) who forged the American literary and cultural consciousness of the late 40s, 50s, and paved the way for the revolution that came in the 60s.

Henderson the Rain King, written in 1959, is very much a book to presage that revolution. Henderson is a loud, brash voice of a wealthy America unsatisfied (spiritually, socially, morally) with the position attained at the top of the global heap. He is a 50ish millionaire, a former WWII commando, a pig farmer, father, and the sort of smashing North American intent on fixing things, and afflicted by a constant voice in his head: I want I want I want. What he wants, as with so many of us, is not so clear, and so he heads to Africa to find an answer. There he travels, tells us the story of his life, wives, the time he tried to shoot a cat, and his daughter who brings a small black baby home, and hides her in the closet; he also finds frogs poisoning the well in an idyllic village in the middle of nowhere, and sets about solving the problem. Smasher that he is, he fails, despite his good intentions; does much dammage. He flees the village, and eventually lands under the wing of a philosopher king, former medical student, and lion affictionado, Dahfu. From Dahfu he tries to learn to be, rather than to become.

Bellows writes with a vigorous honesty, maybe unmatched in American letters (Roth called him, along with Faulkner, the backbone of 20th Century American writing). It’s hard to figure just what it is about his writing that is so powerful; he is not a pretty stylist, like, say, Nabokov, and his prose is almost raw, though that rawness has a beauty about it, the rough beauty of the market, maybe, with jarring jumps in language that work even though they probably shouldn’t; and his sentences contain so much, with such little artifice, no trickery, and again, an almost brutal honesty. Henderson says: “We hate death, we fear it. But there’s nothing like it.”

I keep thinking about how conservative we are these days, despite all our freedom and access. Perhaps it is just a matter of our place in history: in the West, we are rich, we are satisfied, and our relationship with things like hunger and war are filtered through media that keeps those problems abstract and far away, in time, space. As the son of Jewish immigrants (first in Montreal, then Chicago), Bellow knew what it was to stuggle to forge a place in an unsettled society, and he served in the Merchant Marines in WWII, so would have known something of fear and death. Not to mention the Holocaust. He, like most from that generation, was acquainted with the dangers and possibilities of humans, of life on the street in America, of the risks of living, and he wrote as if things mattered, because they did. Now in 2007, maybe, things are just too easy, too fixed: we don’t feel, as people did in the post-war era, that we are building things, we don’t feel as if our decisions matter the way they might have 50 years ago. But of course they should, they do, and reading Bellow reminds you of that.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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