I don’t remember when I began reading Henderson the Rain King. It might have been April. When Shawn begins to remark, “You’ve been reading that book for a long time,” I know I’ve been being lazy. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the book. In fact, I generally enjoyed it. I thought the writing was enjoyable, Henderson the character was funny, and the subject matter was decently interesting for a Modern Library Top 100 – because let’s be honest, the majority of them are pretty boring. And the book’s only a little over 300 pages long. But for some reason, it took me at least a month and a half to finish this book. This problem is becoming a trend.
This was my first encounter with Saul Bellow. After reading Doug Shaw’s review of The Adventures of Augie March, I was very afraid. With three James Joyce novels and three Henry James novels on this damn list, how can they punish me with Bellow? So, seeing as how Henderson the Rain King at least LOOKED interesting, I wanted to start there. I also have been meaning to read Herzog, but if I was going to hate Bellow, I wanted to have at least knocked one of his novels off the list.
A brief synoposis: Henderson is a middle-aged guy, neurotic, etc. who decides to go to Africa. He manages to find a guide into the “uncivilized” part of the country. The first tribe he encounters is having a problem with frogs: they have invaded the well used to water their cattle, and contaminated it by their presence. Henderson, believing he can fix the problem, wanting to help, accidently blows up the well, cause much larger problems for the tribe than the frogs did. He and his guide move on. They are picked up by a neighboring tribe (essentially captured), and there Henderson meets Dahfu, their King. They become friends, and Henderson – through a show of strength – becomes the Rain King. This isn’t a great thing to be actually. Not everyone likes Dahfu, and when he is killed while trying to capture a lion. It’s only then that Henderson is told that if the king dies without an heir, the Rain King takes over. Henderson really just wants to get out of there, and he and his guide manage to escape, and Henderson heads home.
While I'm sure the book is full of symbols, Bellow wrote an article for the NY Times shortly before Henderson's publication saying people shouldn't read too much into books, so I'll ignore the symbology. Take the man at his word, right?
While reading the book, something was bothering me. The voice reminded me of something, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. About half-way through I realized that to some extent, it was the similarity between Henderson the Rain King and a book I read a few years ago, Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Both deal with similar subjects and with similar humorous approaches. Then, three-quarters of the way through, I realized that Henderson’s voice, his manner of speaking and dealing with situations reminded me of Woody Allen somewhat. I guess it was the neurotic part.
So, Henderson is the story of a Woody Allen-like character in Africa, and there's a lion hunt. All-in-all, it's kind of hard to fail with that set-up, and Bellow does a good job. I can't say that I'm looking forward to The Adventures of Augie March, but from what I've heard and thinking about the writing style in Henderson, I think that Herzog is promising. Bellow is a writer I will be revisiting, forced by the Modern Library or not.