Realized that this book took me almost a month to read, though it was thoroughly enjoyable and it is clearly lack of time rather than interest that interrupted it so often. It’s actually become one of my favorites.
I’m totally taken in by Bellow’s protagonist, Henderson. He is a passionate idealist with hands made up of all thumbs. He is the mid-life crisis that goes awry, aided by wealth to send him off on opportunity.
There is, to me, a touch of magical realism here in Henderson’s larger than life personality, as if it embodies all of man’s dreams and wonderment. His childhood, his travels, his way with women, the adventures that almost always turn into misadventure are all to the extreme, even beyond that which money and position afford him. Bellow is asking just as much of us as would Marquez in suspension of disbelief when in the darkest core of Africa he happens upon a village plagued by frogs, a king who plays with a lion.
The dysfunctional family in which Henderson was reared, by a father who he felt resented him for living while his brother was drowned at a young age, is a script that continues as he cannot seem to communicate nor understand his own five children. He has a teenage daughter who brings home a baby she’s "found" and hides it in a closet. There is a reaching out to each other for love that seems to find glass walls that prohibit any real closeness.
There is also a feeling taken from novels such as Gatsby or Mrs. Dalloway, that smacks of an earlier decade in the century and a wealth that allowed a devil-may-care attitude. Yet the character of Henderson touches something inside of us that relates to him, that would love to have known him had he been real. Perhaps it’s the pathos of tragi-comedy in his manner. He may seem to some to be a bumbling, socially inept bully yet there is an endearing quality about him that says his heart is in the right place and we forgive him the naivete of his nature.
I loved the story, Bellow giving the novel its full complement of conflict and pacing of action to surround the basic character-driven plot. All the major and minor characters, Lily, Romilayu, Dahfu, and the rest were all fully developed, rounded, serving a purpose to interact with the character of Henderson, admittedly a tough act to follow. It is a story of quest, a hero that is not quite what we expect and who fails miserably more often than not and so we cheer him on.
With the intrigue of the opening line: What made me take this trip to Africa? and the incessant I want! we are pulled through the innermost reflections of a man who feels he must find something in himself even as he hears the bell toll. His latest challenge to himself now has the additional burden of a deadline. It appears that the spikes of tension that provide excitement for the reader coil like barbed wire around that underlying quest for self. And the answer he seeks to the voice that cries "I want!"–well, this:
It wanted reality. How much unreality could it stand? (p. 298)
I would argue that Henderson’s reality may be in fact unreality to others because of his peculiar worldview. Does he find what he seeks? It appears so, as he heads home with the lion cub that represents his friend in his lap and the sworn intention to change and see love as the real source of happiness. But then, we’ve been fooled by Henderson’s enthusiasm before. As has he.
(Note: This official site on Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King makes me think both that I’ve missed much in my comprehension, and also that the reader is free to make anything of anything, just as Barthes insists.