Henderson the Rain King is a perfect example of why Saul Bellow is perhaps the most serious of comedic writers. His love of language flows through our restless, yearning narrator, Eugene Henderson, an aristocrat dissatisfied with life and forever chasing a voice inside of him screaming, ‘I want! I want! I want!’
Henderson, though big and brutish, though sometimes childish and quick to speak, is not only capable of thinking complex thoughts, but squeezing them through the filter of his simple language and still managing a sense of music. Henderson often reads like the thinking man’s Hemingway, or like a comedic prequel to Heart of Darkness with Henderson himself as some sort of goof-ball Kurtz.
This book is a coming-of-age tale, if you’re still allowed to use that term for a story about a man in his late fifties. After deciding that he wants to start living his life, he does what any sane do—He flies to Africa.
Having parted ways with his wife, Lily, Henderson hires a guide named Romilayu, who takes him to the village, Arnewi. He meets the leader of the village, Itelo, with whom it seems customary to have a wrestling match, whether as greeting or as a test of strength. Throughout the narrative, there’s a peculiar shame that Henderson expresses over his own immense physical prowess. When beaten by Henderson, Itelo shouts, ‘I know you now!’ to which Henderson responds:
I couldn’t say what I felt, which was: ‘No, no you don’t. You never could. Grief has kept me in condition and that’s why this body is so tough. Lifting stones and pouring concrete and chopping wood and toiling with the pigs—my strength isn’t happy strength. It wasn’t a fair match. Take it from me, you are a better man.’
Henderson’s monstrous drive and need for purpose finds a temporary channel when he learns that a plague of frogs, which they consider a curse, has visited their river. Having failed to rid them of the plague, he and Romilayu travel on to the village of Wariri. It is here that he is introduced to strange games of social humiliation: They put a dead body in a room next to where he and Romilayu are meant to stay the night. He goes to move the body only to find it moved back to the house again later.
The novel is packed with symbolism, which it would seem that Bellow didn’t want us to read too much into, if we’re to take him at his word in an article he published shortly before the book came out about the danger of gleaning the meanings of symbolism. The novel is packed with Africa, which scandalized people who thought the subject matter was far too serious to take lightly as an imaginative exercise requiring little research. In an interview with the Paris Review, Bellow said that too much research for such a subject would have blunted his imagination.
What is it he imagines? He gives us a wild Waririan ritual filled with dancing, animals and warriors. At one point, Henderson is challenged by the King Dhafu of the Wariri people to move one of their statues with his strength. Succeeding, and being the only one who can lift it, he unwittingly earns the title ‘Sungo,’ which is a rain warrior.
Honor, granted to him by King Dhafu, is almost more than poor Henderson can bear. Our narrator spends a great deal of time telling us of his restless and confused headspace, but at the end of the day, he seems to be quite a simple character. His immense bravery is matched by immense cowardice. As King Dhafu beckons him to come near his lion as a test of courage, Henderson goes as far as to shed tears for the ‘richness’ of the situation.
It is a very lion-riddled book. Our introduction to the lion is a situation just as rich as our introduction to the bald eagle in Augie March.
From this darkness came the face of the lioness, wrinkling, with her whiskers like the thinnest spindles scratched with a diamond on the surface of a glass.
If we try to get too much into the symbolism of animals featured heavily in western novels, we say too much to arrive at the simple fact that something is being said about power beyond man and a sort of associated majesty. As for the Wariri people, they have a very specific mythology concerning lions. King Dhafu explains to Henderson that Wariri witches have congress with bad lions and that the resulting children are dangerous. ‘This is peculiar,’ Henderson says.
The gentile Henderson assures us that he is a man filled and wrought with grief at every turn. He prays:
‘Oh you … Something,’ I said, ‘you Something because of whom there is not Nothing. Help me to do Thy Will. Take off my stupid sins. Untrammel me. Heavenly Father, open up my dumb heart and for Christ’s sake preserve me from unreal things…’
Bellow hasn’t quite fooled this reader, I’m afraid to say. We’re meant to believe, especially after Augie, that mere suffering on some unexplainable emotional level is something to take issue with, if we’re to follow and sympathize with Henderson, who, despite his narrative congeniality, seems to suffer constantly, though we’re only led to believe this because he says so.
Lions, lions, loyalty and lions. Whether the lions are incarnates of the souls of dead kings or whether American gentiles are secrete heirs to the Wariri thrown, Bellow is determined to create a context in which he can throw such lines at us as, ‘It’s love that makes reality. The opposite makes the opposite.’
Desire seems to feature strongly in Bellow’s early formative work. Yet there’s something fundamentally different about this book and Augie. In Augie, we’re made to feel that our main character is stalling, that his passions and life-hungers have little to do with what is expected or even with some definable personal goal, especially in the last pages. However, in Henderson, we’re presented with a character who is unabashedly goal-oriented; a character who cares so much about results and the tragedy of his failures that he’s willing to steak his whole sense of identity on them.
And, similar to Augie, we’re left with Henderson vocally acknowledging the virtues of maintaining a positive outlook, though in Henderson’s case, the circumstances seem much gloomier.
In the end, we’re left to conclude that spirit, rather than sets of measurable philosophy, is what’s most important in Bellow’s early work.