Henderson the Rain King

by Saul Bellow

Taking it a step further...I even wonder if by some fantastic coincidence I've managed to score my mother's actual copy of Henderson the Rain King. But then, on further inspection of my copy purchased used off of ebay, I find a yellowed newspaper clipping tucked inside. It's a photograph of Saul Bellow (and his wife) arriving in Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize. It's not my mother's style to have cut something out of the newspaper & used it as a bookmark; that would have been a move more in my grandparents' bailiwick. It is also not her handwriting that dates the clipping to the year 1976.

But we're on the topic of fantastic coincidences. I was on chapter three, just beginning the book—which first sucks you in at a rollicking pace—when I came across the following statement by the protagonist's second wife, whose mother has just died. "She is gone now. I had to hire a plane to scatter her ashes over Lake George as she wanted." When my mother knew she was dying she asked us to scatter her ashes from an airplane into the Pacific Ocean off Maui; a wish we obliged. Do you suppose she got the idea from reading Henderson the Rain King? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that I felt unusually connected to her when I read that bit of subplot.

I also think I understand more about why she liked Saul Bellow books. After all, they're a lot like John Irving books, which she loved & made a point of reading (every one) immediately upon publication. They have superdiverse casts of characters...who are also, figuratively, real 'characters.' They concern not-to-be-believed adventures & lives. Henderson the Rain King even features a rollercoaster-riding bear...and if that doesn't sound like a subplot straight out of John Irving, nothing does.

I'll pull back & get more objectively critical of Henderson the Rain King now. I think Saul Bellow has pacing problems. This is something I also felt when reading The Adventures of Augie March way back when on the list. While the pacing that time felt clunky in broad swaths & incisive in the compact incidents, in Henderson the Rain King it's the exact opposite! I love reading about Gene Henderson's backstory in the first third of the book, and I'm almost equally enthralled by the ending, which moves us along again in space & time. The middle third, however—which slows down time & hangs in an acute period & place—bordered on losing my interest. So I must return to saying again, very generally: tempo draws attention to itself in the writing of Saul Bellow.

I'm being critical because I have to be. Henderson the Rain King is a fun read, goes very quickly, & I think would be enjoyed by most readers. It won't go down in history as my favorite thing, or even anywhere near it, really. There is some thought-provoking material within these pages, and the protagonist to be sure is a truthseeker, but all that stuff is handled in a manner closer to fatuous than anything else. Like I say, probably a "fun read" for most. Mostly I am grateful for the amazing property of literature that bridges time & dimension and connects us even to those who are gone.