Before I go much further with the reading, there’s something to this novel that for some reason I can’t seem to put into words.
The story of Eugene Henderson, a self-proclaimed millionaire of about fifty-plus, is seeking something and while he’s at a loss to understand exactly what it is, the reader can come up with many different ideas. This theme of inner conflict aroused by desire is typical novel fare, yet this is more than mid-life crisis or boredom borne of wealth. Many readers likely could not deal with this character and might write him off as self-centered and spoiled. Henderson is much deeper than that though, representing clearly that voice within all of us that spurs us on to look further for…well…something.
Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger. It only said one thing, I want, I want!
And I would ask, "What do you want?"
But this was all it would ever tell me. It never said a thing except I want I want, I want! (p. 29)
Maybe we’re born with it, maybe that’s what we scream as toddlers, murmur to ourselves as young adults, try to ignore as responsible and mature individuals, miss terribly as the elderly. We’ve all done it (I think…): had a miserably frustrating day and sat out on the back steps and said it aloud: "I want…" and the rest of the sentence hangs there.
So Eugene Henderson has the money to go to Africa. All this is is a step beyond the normal realm of our individual comfort zone and for the well-traveled Henderson, Africa is virgin territory. For me, it might be that cabin in the woods, or a freefall from a plane. It’s testing the water, tasting it and hoping for some sudden lightning bolt of realization. Even what is sought is looked for not only in different territory and different ways, but since the discovery of what is just as important as where or how, anything goes. And anything disappoints.
I was very upset, but what upset me was not his expression, which soon changed for the better; it was, among other things, the fact hat he spoke to me in English. I don’t know why I should have been so surprised–disappointed is the word. It’s the great imperial language of today, taking its turn after Greek and Latin and so on. (p. 55)
For Henderson, excited and thrilled at finding a village of people so different from himself, so emotional and as they cry for a sacred cow he believes that he’ll be able to save them, help them. He comes so close to thinking that he’s discovered his purpose, his want, that when one of them suddenly speaks to him in English it hits him like a dead end. This wasn’t it.
The beginning of the book sets up Henderson’s story of his life up to that point, focusing on his two wives in particular. For me, coming off of Updike’s Rabbit, Run, it was too familiar to initiate a posting, carrying me further into the book and the character led by Bellow’s carrot of Africa. It was a necessary history, of course, but it appears that Henderson’s journey will be much more interesting and telling.
Again, here we must look beyond the circumstances of the character to find the spot where we are him, and he is us. That’s where the real story lies.