Summoning a deluge from the sky, building an explosive to rid a pond of frogs, forging an intimate bond with a powerful lion these are just some of the actions undertaken in Africa by the title character in Saul Bellow's astounding, inventive novel Henderson The Rain King.
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and a titan of 20th-century American fiction, Bellow belongs to a select group of skilled American novelists (with John Updike and Philip Roth) best known for their precise examinations of middle-aged, middle-class men yearning for more out of life than two cars or two houses. Bellow's title character in Henderson harbors the same, ceaseless hunger for life, manifested in a voice inside him which cries out day in and day out, "I want, I want, I want." But while Roth and Updike's characters rarely stray far from America's northeast corridor, the voice inside Eugene Henderson compels him to travel to remote corners of civilization in Africa.
A brief summary of the novel's plot sounds preposterous: a middle-aged millionaire travels to Africa, where he becomes The Rain King. But Bellow manages to make such a seemingly far-fetched story sound believable one sentence at a time.
And narrator Joe Barrett's grizzled voice is perfect for bringing to life Henderson's unique perspective and tone. In the beginning, Henderson is like one of those pushy, half-drunk loudmouths you can't wait to get away from in line at an airline counter. Listening to Barrett squawk Henderson's wisecracks and American slang in Africa initially gives the book an absurd, humorous quality. But as this fable-like novel progresses, Henderson gradually and plausibly evolves into a God-like figure. Barrett makes the dramatic transformation, as well as the entirety of Henderson's mad-cap journey, sound realistic. Ken Ross
Ranked #21 on Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels, Henderson the Rain King's blend of philosophical discourse and comic adventure has helped make it one of Bellow's most enduringly popular works. It is said to be Bellow's own favorite among his books.
Bellow evokes all the rich color and exotic customs of a highly imaginary Africa in this comic novel about a middle-aged American millionaire who, seeking a new, more rewarding life, descends upon an African tribe. Henderson's awesome feats of strength and his unbridled passion for life earn him the admiration of the tribe - but it is his gift for making rain that turns him from mere hero into messiah.
A hilarious, often ribald story, Henderson the Rain King is also a profound look at the forces that drive a man through life.
As an added bonus, when you purchase our Audible Modern Vanguard production of Saul Bellow's book, you'll also receive an exclusive Jim Atlas interview. This interview - where James Atlas interviews Azar Nafisi about the life and work of Saul Bellow - begins as soon as the audiobook ends.
This production is part of our Audible Modern Vanguard line, a collection of important works from groundbreaking authors.
©1959 Saul Bellow (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
"A kind of wildly delirious dream made real by the force of Bellow's rollicking prose and the offbeat inventiveness of his language." (Chicago Tribune)
I hadn't heard of this book, which I now find is on several 'best of ..' lists. And what a treat! It will be my 'desert island' book having comedy, adventure, thoughtfulness and joy. Its wonderful to be old and have your prejudices turned over. During the course of the book I moved from antibodies to the protagonist to recognising him as a force of nature.
And wonderfully read by Joe Barrett.
"Amazing Book on Many Levels"
I hate to write a trite review about a great book so I won't. I won't recap the story.
I will say that if you are male and have 40+ years under your belt, you will enjoy and be deeply touched by this incredible book. All others? You probably like it, maybe a lot.
This, I believe, is a book men need to read. And women? You'll get the inside scoop on the male psyche.
Don't miss this masterpiece.
"Funny and Powerful"
One review called this racist, colonial, and an absurd farce. Another that Henderson was a Baron Munchhausen. I could not disagree more. This is a humorous book about a man facing his own mortality and fretful desires with incredible energy and love. Henderson’s quest is improbable, adventurous, transformational, and funny, but not absurd or farcical. There is nothing here close to Munchhausen riding a cannonball or taking lunar excursions.
I found the writing quite conversational yet subtly superb. The characters are well written and I found Henderson eminently likeable. He was flawed, but not more so than most, and he had an admirable and indomitable love of life. The book at one level is gruff and oozes manliness, yet under this very thin veneer one finds fear, loneliness, and powerlessness. All this, with humor on every page.
The narration is darn near perfect. It is difficult for me to imagine how it could be better. Barrett is clear and bombastic and uses tone to express the emotions just under the surface.
This is a classic and worthy of it praises. Worth listening to again.
"Read it again as a grownup"
Many of us read Henderson when we were in our Modern Literature courses in college and my recollection was sketchy and an outline of the book, if that, from my 20's. As an adult who has gone through life transitions, I wish I had read Henderson a decade ago in my 50's, when I was searching, like we all do, for some type of affirmation of my life or, lacking that, try another journey. The book is wonderful in all regards - a huge and compelling metaphor for aging, anxiety, humor as a weapon, self-doubt coupled with a desire for....."I want, I WANT". Henderson is a great read with a great performance and, in the highest form of flattering I can offer, made me go out to order the book so I can underline all the parts and phrases I loved and want to remember. Just terrific. The voices will live in my head forever.
"A book that gets better with age."
I enjoyed this book when I was 20. I enjoyed it more this time because at 52, I'm the same age as Henderson and on he makes so much more sense.
"I loved this book!"
The characters were interesting. Henderson was lovable but flawed. His ability to get away with the things he did and said was almost unbelievable. His yearning is relatable. I loved his adventures and introspection in Africa. Sooo good!
"Read recommendations sooner"
I loved this book. It was recommended to me by a very good friend and my only regret was not reading it sooner. I found the characters enjoyable and applied the lessons that Henderson learned to my own life quite easily as a 22 y/o male. I believe that it is less important to listen to the interview at the end unless you are a Saul Bellows fanatic.
"Exceptional Voice Both as a Performance and Character"
Bellow is at his best when his characters are on the hunt for the great "I Want. I Want." Henderson finds it, finally, in the darkest place he can travel, metaphorically in the heart of Africa, but really in his heart, his family and his memory.
"Bellow is the King"
This is the tragedy of romancing life...this is how luck does not favor the bold...this is how you come to learn to celebrate defeat.
"Our protagonist is a prat"
I enjoyed some parts of this story but it all got a little Munchhausen for me and I have read enough of that genre and certainly many better than this. But if you haven't you may enjoy this.
I don't know how to read this book. It's comic. it's farcical. It's racist. It's absurd. It horrified me the whole way through in that repulsive, I can't look away, sort of way. Nothing resolves this book of its racism, of its colonial distain, while at the same time it forces you to confront this racism and oppose it. Great. Terrible. Disgusting
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