Henderson the Rain King is an enjoyable journey that takes us to Africa with the book’s namesake, the dapper Gene Henderson. The story flashes back to multiple indiscretions on the part of the main character.
What was odd is that Saul Bellow had apparently published a “warning” to readers in advance of publication that they should not delve too deeply for symbolism and should just enjoy the story. Hopefully, readers did not take that seriously as the book is full of symbolic reference as we travel back and forth from Africa to Henderson’s past antics in New York and Paris. I’ve concluded that Bellow was quite the jokester based on the humorous and self deprecating tone of Henderson.
A man of wealth who becomes bored with his life and its lack of purpose, Henderson sets out in search of meaning and gets some surprises. Joining his pal on his African honeymoon is his first blunder, but he quickly recovers and is assisted by his African guide, Romilayu, who introduces him to the Arnewi tribe where he blunders yet again and leaves them in shame. Traveling on to meet the Wariri, they are captured by that tribe and through a series of unusual events, Henderson becomes their rain king.
His daughter’s discovery of an abandoned black baby was surely predictive and his wife’s statement of his being “unkillable” becomes truth as Henderson survives travels through the jungle and barbaric tribal ceremonies. His attempted killing of an abandoned cat and his discovery of a dead cook, Miss Lenox, are corollaries of his encounters with King Dhafu and his lions.
Unfortunately, the only enlightenment I see Henderson realizing is that his father would have mourned him equally as he did his brother who drowned in a chase from police.
Its easy to like Henderson and he reminds us of someone we can’t quite recall by name, but he remains a self centered man destined to continue a hedonistic life only with new stories to share.
With the exception of Henderson and King Dhafu, the remaining characters were rather one-dimensional and perhaps that was the author’s intent, but more details of some of the central characters would have added to the novel’s overall depth.
King Dhafu was to be Henderson’s intellectual equal and attempts to enlighten him. Dhafu was educated in England and embraces Henderson as he thirsts for a contemporary he feels lacking amongst his tribe (and he wonders why they want to overthrow him). Their relationship grows, but gets halted due to ritualistic circumstances.
While the book was enjoyable, it lacked closure. It felt as though one were listening, good-naturedly, to the tales of a wealthy old man who was unable to bring his store to culmination.
I would enjoy chatting with Mr. Bellow as I think he’d be a very funny fellow indeed. His skill at capturing the inner thoughts of a character is quite deft and one I would love to possess. I think there was much more to this man than one would see at first glance.
My rating for Henderson the Rain King is a 7 out of 10.
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