A beautiful and engrossing book by Saul Bellow, published in 1959, about an alienated, neurotic man (Henderson) who cannot seem to find his place in society.

At the start of the novel the reader learns about Henderson’s past, where he comes off as a pathetic jerk. Henderson received a large inheritance after his father died, eventually goes through two marriages and has five children. Henderson is large in stature, prone to mood swings, and he cannot seem to understand the proper way to react to some of the events that occur in his life. For instance, he tries to kill a cat that was left on his property by previous tenants. The fact that he deliberately fails in this murder attempt shows some inkling of a better man inside. He eventually is overcome by his need to find himself (with a constant nagging voice inside him yelling “I want, I want!”) and decides to take a trip to Africa.

Once there, he asks his guide Romilayu to show him some of the more remote areas of the country. In doing this, Henderson eventually runs across two tribes. The first tribe he encounters is very nice towards him, but Henderson manages to destroy this relationship in his (incredibly humorous) attempt to clear their small water supply of a frog plague. He and Romilayu run off and encounter another tribe, where Henderson manages to befriend the king, Dahfu. The tribe is in the midst of important ceremonies, and Henderson suddenly finds himself with a leading role in the ceremony- and through an incredibly bizarre mix of events (beautifully written and exciting) Henderson becomes the appointed Sungo, or Rain King. King Dahfu then asks Henderson to help him capture a lion (a lion believed to be the reincarnate of the previous ruler), which is apparently the final step the king must take to ensure his spot on the throne. While preparing for the capture of the lion, King Dahfu tries to help Henderson in his quest to learn more about himself through philosophical conversation. The king draws similarities between a powerful and magnificent animal- a lion- and man, and looks to help Henderson find his own lion within him.

I will not reveal the ending, though Henderon’s journey into Africa and all of the amazing events he encounters there help him discover a greater sense of who he is as a person, and guides him to what he truly wants out of his life and future. Bellow’s excellent combination of humor and eloquent word use makes for a wonderful, entertaining read.

Some of my favorite passages:

“Somehow I am a sucker for beauty and can trust only it, but I keep passing through and out of it again. It never has enough duration. I know it is near because my gums begin to ache; I grow confused, my breast melts, and then bang, the thing is gone. Once more I am on the wrong side of it.”

“America is so big, and everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on, and I guess the sufferers suffer at the same rate. Everybody wanting to pull together. I tried every cure you can think of. Of course, in an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness, too.”

“The king here is one of the most intelligent people in the world, and I have great faith in him, and he tells me I should move from the states that I myself make into the states which are of themselves. Like if I stopped making such a noise all the time I might hear something nice.”

“I don’t think the struggles of desire can ever be won. Ages of longing and willing, willing and longing, and how have they ended? In a draw, dust and dust.”

One of the subtleties I enjoy in this wonderful novel is the fact that protagonist Eugene Henderson was modeled after Ernest Hemingway. Bellow uses Henderson not only to satirize Hemingway's machoism, but also to show that his egoistic way of life is not a satisfying way to live.

Henderson has a shooting range in his basement, raises animals, carries a .357 Magnum, is interested in Africa, participated in an overseas battle in World War II, abuses alcohol, enjoys physical activity (such as chopping wood and smashing stone), and is a millionare. With his initials "E.H." and the striking similarities between the lifestyles of the two, I suppose it is not such a subtle comparison (if the reader is familiar with Hemingway).

At the same time, Henderson is a walking paradox. He is unsatisfied with the life his brutishness affords him, plays the violin, and realizes that selfishness, strength, and stereotypically male activities cannot stop the voice that says "I want!, I want!, I want!"

His compulsive destroying of the frogs in the cistern of Itelo's tribe and his subsequent banishment exemplifies Bellow's belief that only peace, nobility, and good deeds can satisfy man. Only after relaxing under the pristine stars of Africa and attempting to be more like the wise Dahfu does Eugene Henderson reach self actualization. This is Bellow's message: machoism, strength, and selfishness are not viable ways of reaching one's full potential.

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