Henderson the Rain King is a mad, antic fantasy, perhaps the most comic of Bellow’s novels. Rich, world-weary Eugene Henderson, like the heroes of myth, seeks escape from the burden of the world and embarks on a journey to unknown lands in search of meaning and peace. The unknown land is Africa, and Henderson arrives there in poverty of spirit, having, like lshmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), the need to find purpose in his life. Henderson is a kind of Tommy Wilhelm in reverse, except that Henderson, a graduate of an Ivy League university, has a broader perspective, a core of reference that is beyond Tommy’s imagining. Whereas Tommy seeks meaning in the financial markets and then in the urbanized coldness of his father’s disapproval, Henderson, already financially secure, seeks meaning in the pastoral and the primitive. Where Tommy seeks relief in futures, Henderson seeks salvation in a kind of past, a land primeval and innocent.
His first adventure is in the land of the Arnewi, in a village in the midst of mountains and clean air. The landscape suggests a primordial world of Edenic innocence, and Henderson at first is a kind of Adam, ready to start fresh. The novel, in fact, is rich in suggestive allusions to biblical and secular literary characters. As a new Adam, however, Henderson is a failure. As Moses, armed with his faith, had parted the waters of the Red Sea to save his people, so Henderson, armed with the weapons of technology, attempts to rid the life-giving well of an infestation of frogs. His role as savior backfires: He blows up the well, bringing destruction rather than life. Like Mark Twain’s “Sir Boss” in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Henderson has tried to improve humankind by the beneficence of civilization; he has tried to impose a modern system of values on a primitive but honest culture.
In this first adventure, however, the destruction that Henderson wreaks teaches him little about his own place in the world. Continuing his quest for meaning, he comes next to the Wariri, among whom his most telling lessons in self-wisdom occur. Though he has become a “rain king” by the notable feat of moving a stone rain goddess, his exalted position comes only at the price of his physical humiliation—he is flayed and thrown into the mud of a cattle pond.
Additionally, Henderson comes under the influence of the tribe’s philosopher-king, Dahfu, who ponders metaphysics and is convinced that his destiny is to return in the afterlife as a lion. King Dahfu is a puzzling character. He seems genuinely humble in the face of universal mysteries revealed to him in his philosophy, yet his incessant talking reminds the reader of the stream of con men who appear in Bellow’s novels, from Einhorn and Tamkin to the gangster, Rinaldo Cantabile, of Humboldt’s Gift. Dahfu’s effect on Henderson is both serious and wildly comic. Convinced that Henderson must free himself from his fears of inadequacy, Dahfu prescribes a therapy entailing Henderson’s confrontation with a lioness. The scene in which the rain king finally learns to imitate the courage of the lioness, even to the point of getting down on all fours and roaring, is both comic and pathetic. Again, Henderson is humiliated, this time spiritually, but he has learned the meaning of humanity’s noble fragility in a crazy world.
The novel ends with one of those physical epiphanies typical of Bellow’s work. Henderson is at an airport in Newfoundland—the place name reflects Henderson’s newfound self. He has escaped from the Wariri and from the “past” of Africa, and he has taken under his wing an American child who is flying back to the United States, alone and frightened. He cares for the child, gives it comfort, and embraces it. He has found his meaning: sympathy for the family of humankind.
(The entire section is 1,607 words.)