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...
(The entire section is 659 words.)