Michael Alexander's Reviews > Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
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Dec 27, 11

Recommended for: People wondering what the hell to do with themselves in life
read count: 2

Just off a reread from this baby, I'm both reminded of how amazing its best parts are and made aware for the first time how lame its worst parts are. Really, this thing is a 5-star, best-of-all-time book and a dubious 3-star adventure yoked together pretty awkwardly--but sometimes transcendently.

The heart of what I love in this book is the poetry of the language, the over-the-top romanticism about Life and Meaning and Ecstatic Experience. Bellow is pouring out these incredible bits of prose about the unacknowledged beauty of life and the difficulty of remembering it in a world where everything good eventually runs down to nothing. And he's doing it in maybe the best midlife crisis narrative I've ever read, with this vitality-bursting-out comic expansiveness that reminds me of bits of Joyce or Tom Robbins or Sterne (sorry to pick people so utterly disparate, but the thread works in my head I _swear_)--and like those, the vigor of the comedy is just a way of expressing a deeply serious and poignant love of life. And this drunken, gluttonous loud-mouthed boor of a life-wasting heir to a fortune who Bellow makes his main character is an AMAZING creation to carry this narrative.

And then there's the Africa adventure stuff. Which is meant to be a silly fantasy-world, a kind of sharp parody of Heart of Darkness, where Henderson thinks he can confront all his demons at Freudian Disneyland but turns out to have to face Real Honest To God Life (Amongst Intentionally Ridiculous Stereotypes of "Natives")--and sometimes, that works brilliantly, and sometimes it's just LAME. It works better, with some real tragedy and clear sense that he's being an arrogant prick and has to face the consequences, with the first "tribe" he meets than the second, lemme tell ya. And that second culture he encounters takes up a good hundred pages that suck out most of the energy of the rest of the book.

But those words, at their best, they GLOW:

"We are funny creatures. We don't see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects but endless fire."

"Shall I run back into the desert ... and stay there until the devil has passed out of me and I am fit to meet human kind again without driving it to despair at the first look? I haven't had enough desert yet."
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Jamie You say pretty much the same thing that I say in my own review - if the plot of this book would match up with the turns of phrase, I would pick it unequivocally as one of my favorite books ever. I can't help but be disappointed by the weird, strangely unpoetic plot.


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