Huh — so, the plot of this book, I say to myself, having chosen it at random from Peter Boxall's 1001 Books
list, is a rich white guy goes to Africa to learn the meaning of life from the noble savages. Oh, I can see that this will turn out well.
Saul Bellow is one of those Big Literary Dudes I've never read, but by reputation I was expecting him to be kind of like Philip Roth
or J.M. Coetzee
(who I did not love) — lots of manly wangsting to the tune of Fond Memories of Vagina
Okay, let me dial down the snark. If you read Henderson the Rain King
with your PC glasses off, it's actually a better book than I was expecting, with a certain exuberance and joie de vivre
that endeared it to me. I'm pretty sure "joie de vivre" isn't actually what Saul Bellow was going for, as the protagonist is actually a rather depressive fellow, a middle-aged divorcee whose wife and kids don't understand him, a World War II combat veteran with scars of the sort that that generation never admits to, running off to Africa because despite being rich and comfortable, he can't get no satisfaction, a decade before Mick and the Stones. Actually, Henderson's constant internal refrain is I want, I want, I want
, and he spends the entire book trying to figure out what
it is he wants.
But there is something I liked about that big galoot Henderson, despite the fact that he goes stomping around Africa like the blundering big-nosed American he is. He loves and respects the Africans he meets, referring to them unselfconsciously as "savages" but meaning it in a nice way, and otherwise never displaying any racial prejudices. Is he a great big schmuck? Yes, especially after his attempt to "help" the first tribe he meets goes disastrously wrong. Like the big impervious dumbass white man he is, he walks away unscathed, feeling very, very bad about it. He finds another tribe, becomes a friend and confidant of the king, becomes the Sungo, the Rain God, in an improbable feat that had me rolling my eyes (okay, seriously? You're gonna go there, Mr. Bellow?), but as it turns out, the tribe has been playing their own game all along, using the clueless white guy as an instrument in their machinations since he so kindly presented himself as a useful fool. That being said, just as Henderson has genuine affection for the Africans, in his oblivious, patronizing way, they have genuine affection for him — even if they are willing to literally throw him to the lions, should it come to that.
Most of the book, though, is taken up with the inside of Henderson's head, which is a more interesting place than it has any right to be thanks in large part to Saul Bellow's writing.
"Sometimes a condition must worsen before bettering," he said, and he began to tell me of diseases he had known when he was on the wards as a student, and I tried to picture him as a medical student in a white coat and white shoes instead of the velvet hat adorned with human teeth and the satin slippers. He held the lioness by the head; her broth-colored eyes watched me; those whiskers, suggesting diamond scratches, seemed so cruel that her own skin shrank from them at the base. She had an angry nature. What can you do with an angry nature?
Ah, why can't any SF authors write a space opera with prose like that?
So this is a book about dudely dissatisfaction, yes, and it is kind of hard to feel sympathy for a millionaire who goes gallivanting off to Africa, deliberately seeking out the untouristed Africa and disappointed that there is so little untouristed Africa left. (As the first tribe he meets out in the hinterlands apologetically explains to him — in English — "We are discovered.") Bearing in mind this was written in the late 50s. Yet I did feel sorry for poor Henderson, and I even liked the guy. He makes a study of his own suffering, but he also tries to do right, ineptly but sincerely. And Saul Bellow paints him in big, bold colors, very much alive, very much complicated, an ultimately puny and comic human figure despite his vigorous strength and enviable wealth.
My rating wavered between 3 and 4 stars, so I give it 3.5, and will round to 4. I didn't love it, but would not be averse to reading another of Bellow's works.