History: Published in 1959. It is said to be the most beloved of all Bellow's works.
Plot: Eugene Henderson is a troubled middle-aged man. He is on his second marriage, his wife who he truly loves, his children he loves, but he is still not happy. Despite his riches, high social status, and physical prowess, he feels restless and unfulfilled, and harbors a spiritual void that manifests itself as an inner voice crying out I want, I want, I want. Hoping to discover what the voice wants, Henderson goes to Africa. There he travels, tells us the story of his life, wives, the time he tried to shoot a cat, and his daughter who brings a small black baby home, and hides her in the closet.
Upon reaching Africa, Henderson splits with his original group and hires a native guide, Romilayu. Romilayu leads Henderson to the village of the Arnewi, where Henderson befriends the leaders of the village. He learns that the cistern from which the Arnewi get their drinking water is plagued by frogs, thus rendering the water "unclean" according to local taboos. Henderson attempts to save the Arnewi by ridding them of the frogs, but his enthusiastic scheme ends in disaster. While bombing the cistern to kill the frogs, he also splits the cistern wall and the water supply is drained. In shame, he and Romilayu flee further inward.
Henderson and Romilayu travel on to the village of the Wariri. Here, Henderson impulsively performs a feat of strength - he lifts the goddess statue and moves it in a contest of strength, and unwittingly becomes Wariri Rain King. He quickly develops a friendship with the native-born but western-educated Chief, King Dahfu, with whom he engages in a series of far-reaching philosophical discussions.
The elders send Dahfu to find a lion, which is supposedly the reincarnation of the late king, Dahfu's father. The lion hunt fails and the lion mortally wounds the king. Henderson learns shortly before Dahfu's death that the Rain King is the next person in the line of succession for the throne. Fearing the elders would rather see him dead than lead the Wariri, Henderson flees the Wariri village, and makes his way home. With him, he takes the a lion cub, and an orphan boy he meets on the plane.
Although it is unclear whether Henderson has truly found spiritual contentment, the novel ends on an optimistic and uplifting note.
Review: The mixture of anthropology, philosophy and poetry in this book is truly bizarre, and Henderson is one of the great American heroes. This is the first Saul Bellow book I've read. I did love the writing, but I did lose interest in some of the long dialogues between Eugene and the natives. I mostly liked the character, and the descriptions. It was funny, and exciting. his prose is almost raw, though that rawness has a beauty about it, the rough beauty of the market, maybe, with jarring jumps in language that work even though they probably shouldn’t; and his sentences contain so much, with such little artifice, no trickery, and again, an almost brutal honesty. Henderson says: “We hate death, we fear it. But there’s nothing like it.”
Opening Line: "What made me take this trip to Africa?"
Closing Line: "I guess I felt it was my turn now to move, and so went running - leaping, leaping, pounding, and tingling over the pure white lining of the gray Arctic silence."
Quotes: "What a person to meet this distance from home. Yes, travel is advisable. And believe me, the world is a mind. Travel is mental travel. I had always suspected this. what we call reality is nothing but pedantry."
Rating: Very Good.