Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

First read: 2/2002
Reviewed on: 2/20/2002
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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Like many other people, I've gotten into that late night "how would you kill yourself if you were going to do it" conversation.  People think I'm joking when I say, "If I were going to do the deed, I'd break into a zoo and get eaten by a lion or tiger."  I think of it this way - it is a relatively quick way to go if the cat is hungry, and I always wanted to see one of those big cats really up close.  And the important thing is what people say afterwards:

"My friend, Ed, died of a heart attack."
"My friend, Joe, choked on a dried apricot."
"My friend, Doug, got eaten by a TIGER!  A freaking TIGER!"

My brother could have died when he was in Africa and a huge adult chimpanzee threw him off a cliff.  For some reason, being beaten up by a primate isn't as cool as being eaten by a large feline; but that may just be me.

I don't have a lot of adventure in my life.  When I want to live life on The Edge I tend to do things like choose books from the top 100 list by authors that I've disliked in the past.  I lead an exciting life.

I didn't just pick this book to read next because of my rugged fearlessness.  It was an experiment.  I read The Adventures of Augie March about two years ago, and really despised it.  At the time, it was one of my more painful literary experiences.  But since then, I've read many more works of Literature.  My question was this:  Have I learned anything?  I've certainly read worse novels (*cough* *cough* ulysses *cough* *cough*) since then.   Maybe I wasn't well read enough to appreciate Saul Bellow before, and now I've matured enough to enjoy him.

Well, I read this book, and it was pleasant.  It has a great first paragraph: "What made me take this trip to Africa?  There is no quick explanation.  Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated."  I assumed that the Africa trip would be a mere chapter in a pedestrian life story.  I was wrong.  This was a novel about a guy who goes to Africa, and his incredible experience there.  It reminded me of parts of two other novels on the list - the last chapter of A Handful of Dust, and the interesting chapter of The Adventures of Augie March.  But it was better than both - was Henderson staying in the African village willingly?  I'm going to be thinking about that question for a while. 

And, of course, there was the lion!  Yes, there was a lion.   No, there were no cages.  Yes, the potential of being eaten by said lion was an issue.  Its hard to hate a novel like that.

One of Henderson's dilemmas:  Is it a good thing to live in a palace married to dozens of beautiful intelligent half-naked women who are also trained in massage; given that when you get too weak to have sex with them satisfactorily, you will be strangled?  Henderson thought this was a no-brainer.  (No.)  Sitting here in the math building at the University of Northern Iowa - well - at least it isn't an OBVIOUS decision to me.

Now let's talk about the writing.  I kept thinking of Douglas Hofstader's beer paradox.  Hofstader was talking about the last time he had a cool refreshing beer, and comparing it to how much he hated his first beer he had, when he was younger.  Was the new beer a better-tasting brew?  Or did his tastebuds physically adapt to the taste of beer, so it actually had a different taste?  Or was the taste the same, but somehow he had gotten used to it?  I thought this book was much better written than the other Bellow book.  Now, was it better written, or was the writing the same, but I've grown up?  I can't say, of course.  The pontificating was still there, but there seemed to be less of it, and more appropriate.   And I didn't mind it as much in the context.  Henderson seemed to have more interesting thoughts than Augie March did.  I didn't notice boring descriptive parargraphs (and chapters) in Henderson, the Rain King.  But maybe they were still there; only they didn't leap out at me.  I certainly formed wonderful pictures of the two African villages, and the people, and all of that.  And, of course, the lion...  I will never forget the first time Bellow showed me the outline of the lion in the dark.

I was very relieved that I liked this book.  There are other books on this list whose authors have caused me pain; and now I have hope that I will enjoy these books as well.

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