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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

This is bawdy, spontaneous, poetic writing.

Eugene Henderson, an overblown, twice-married, millionaire pig farmer and violin player is having an existential crisis.

I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!

This is the geshrei that drives fifty-five-year-old Henderson into and through a spiritual quest in Africa. He doesn’t know what he wants, just that “everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on . . .” until it is a form of madness. (I think he would be right at home in our time when value is quantified by how many “likes” we’ve accrued.)

Henderson the Rain King is a quest as complicated as any Haruki Murakami tale, but the protagonist is a bloated, bungling American—a man with “the Midas touch in reverse.” In Africa, his first stop is a village of people whose beloved cattle are dying of thirst because the water reserve is occupied by frogs. On one hand, Henderson wants to rescue everybody; on the other, he longs to be rescued:

This was a beautiful, strange, special place, and I was moved by it. I believed the queen could straighten me out if she wanted to; as if, any minute now, she might open her hand and show me the thing, the source, the germ—the cipher. The mystery, you know. I was absolutely convinced she must have it. The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space. We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity. You see, this is our attitude. But now look at Willatale, the Bittah [highly evolved] woman; she had given up such notions, there was no anxious care in her, and she was sustained. Why, nothing bad happened! On the contrary, it all seemed good! Look how happy she was, grinning with her flat nose and gap teeth, the mother-of-pearl eye and the good eye, and look at her white head! It comforted me just to see her, and I felt that I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. (74)

There was so much I could relate to in this wonderful book: the obsession with truth and purpose; the hopelessly flawed character of Henderson whose face belied every twisted thought and emotion; his chronic craving; and finally his exhaustion at the “too-muchness” of living with remedies for his predicament stymied by equal parts laziness, impatience for expanded consciousness, and terror of it.

With so many references to mind-body medicine and scenes that will resonate for anybody who has practiced alternative therapies or body psychology, this feels like a modern book, although it was first published in 1959. I learned from the introduction that Bellow was practiced in Wilhelm Reich’s body psychotherapies, and much of that work and characterology shows up in the book—a bonus for anybody with this knowledge.

The writing is weighty, sometimes digressing in a kind of ADHD spasm, and Bellow lacks the precision I so admire in, my hero and Bellow’s contemporary, John Cheever, and the meticulous cleanliness that makes Murakami’s books so easy to read. But so be it. What he offers is worth the sometimes-exhaustion of the reading effort: a full-blown spiritual quest, from despair to acceptance of our moving gross-body experience of life.





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