Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow 1959
If, as John Gardner says, the novel is a continuous, unfolding dream driven by the characters, then there is no better example than Bellow’s fifth novel. I pulled this book off my shelf after I came across a list of the Modern Library’s 100, the result of nearly 200,000 votes by readers in 1998 that generated a listing of the best 100 novels. In 21st place on that list, right behind Ellison’s Invisible Man and above stalwarts such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Orwell, etc. sat Henderson, a book published 40 years before the poll, but still vital and much read. Since I had hoped to read all of Bellow’s novels some years ago, managing to get through the first four, Henderson seemed like a fine choice. This is a classic Bellow novel in which the main character is a late middle aged male beset with problems (think Moses Herzog, Augie March, Tommy Wilhelm). In this case, Eugene Henderson, 6 feet 4 inches and the scion of a distinguished family which has left him with $3million, is experiencing an existential crisis at 55. The second paragraph of the book gives a vivid summary of his problems: “When I think of my condition at the age of 55 when I bought the ticket, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in my chest. A disorderly rush begins—my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul!” The only thing missing from this litany is COVID! The ticket Henderson is referring to is referred to in the very first line of the book: “What made me take this trip to Africa?” and nearly all of the book takes place in some distant, primitive village in the middle of Africa. There Henderson meets Dahfu, King pf the Wariri, who helps him understand the “I want” which is constantly leaving him needy and anxious. Henderson becomes the tribe’s Rain King and then its King after Dahfu is killed by a lion, finally escaping with a baby lion with whom he flies back to America. A fantastic trip through one man’s mind and a surreal other world. Whether you’re a fan of Bellow, the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1976 along with Pulitzers, National Book Awards, and every other honor that a novelist can win, this book is a marvel of writing. Dense, hyper-active, vivid, and exuberant, it’s no wonder the book made the Modern Library’s list.