14 August 2008

Ur-story: Going Native

When I was a kid (and before the empire of sports became ubiquitous), the local television station used to run four seasons of movies on Sunday afternoon: Comedies (Abbott & Costello, Ma & Pa Kettle, The Three Stooges, Bowery Boys, etc.), dubbed-in-English Gladiator films (Hercules, the Mighty Sons of Hercules, etc.), Westerns, and Tarzan (Jane, Boy, & Cheetah). My favorites were the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies—black-and-white tales of imperialism and lost civilizations and wild jungle beasts tamed by the yodeling of the feral prince. Henderson the Rain King, published in 1959, is Saul Bellow's Tarzan book. Reading this mid-twentieth century satirical romp about a larger than life, trust-fund ne'er-do-well embroiled in a paralyzing middle-aged crisis who decides to 'go native' in deepest, darkest Africa in our own pluralist, relativistic, post-colonial twenty-first century is reminiscent of those Sunday afternoon black-and-white Tarzan movies. Of course, without the Tarzan, et al.

Pretty much everything you need to know is packed into the first few paragraphs of the book:
What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.

When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five when I bought the ticket, all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in the chest. A disorderly rush begins—my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul! I have to cry, "No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone!" But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine. And they pile into me from all sides. It turns into chaos.

However, the world which I thought so mighty an oppressor has removed its wrath from me.
Full stop. There's your thesis statement, and the rest of the book is a working out of the details of the protagonist's 'condition'.

The world, it seems, is too much with Eugene Henderson. So, to work it all out, he embarks on a trip to Africa, horning in on a friend's honeymoon trek. After getting the idea some weeks later that it's not really a good thing to crash someone else's honeymoon, EH hires a local guide to take him deep. They visit a couple of remote village tribes. At the first, EH meets a somewhat stereotypical African queen then commits an act of inexcusable sacrilege and has to flee for his life. At the second, it's nearly the same—except here he, through a test of strength, gets appointed Rain King and successor to the tribal king, who has studied medicine in the West. In EH's eyes, this king is a great man, wise and wonderful, who will show EH why he is so put out with the desirousness/covetousness/acquisitiveness/restlessness of the Western World (and, of course, himself). Essentially (spoiler alert, here), this involves communing with and 'becoming' a lion. The Rousseauistic sage King, it turns out, is indeed a bit of a clever trickster, and has his own agenda for EH. In the nick of time, EH and his man Friday flee under cover of darkness back to civilization. EH flies back home to the New World and, presumably, freedom from this soul disease.

The book is a romping good read of one man's 'going native', though in its attitudes it is as dated as that phrase. The dialogue feels instructional, in some ways. Take this bit from EH, for instance:
"Well, that's all right. I'm a pretty good judge of men and you are a fine one. And from you I can take it. Besides, truth is truth. Confidentially, I have envied flies, too. All the more reason to crash out of prison. Right? If I had the mental constitution to live inside the nutshell and think myself the king of infinite space, that would be just fine. But that's not how I am. King, I am a Becomer. Now you see your situation is different. You are a Be-er. I've just got to stop Becoming. Jesus Christ, when am I going to Be? I have waited a hell of a long time. I suppose I should be more patient, but for God's sake, Your Highness, you've got to understand what it's like with me. So I am asking you. You've got to let me out there. Why it is, I can't say, but I feel called upon to do it, and this may be my main chance. ... King, I'm going to give you the straight poop about myself, as straight as I can make it. Every man born has to carry his life to a certain depth—or else! Well, King, I'm beginning to see my depth. You wouldn't expect me to back away now, would you?"

The book is peppered though with similar sorts of stilted outbursts. They are simply Bellow's style of exposition of the protagonist's character, and, as a reader, you have to adapt to the character's actually speaking this way—though no one speaks like this in 'real life.' EH, the character, is not very likable, a bit of an ugly American. He's blustery and boisterous, impetuous and imperious. And it always gets him in trouble. That's how Bellow created him and we take him as he is, following him down the spiral of himself. The question is whether he can be redeemed, and the answer is not at all obvious.

Bellow's wit is biting, and at places brilliant. My favorite line in the book caught me by surprise in this the fiftieth anniversary year of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (which, as we all know now, was written on a long roll of toilet paper): "I've done a hell of a lot of things, too, both as a soldier and a civilian. I'll say it straight out, I don't even deserve to be chronicled on toilet paper..." Ha! Ha! Then, to make sure we get it, Bellow continues: "But when I saw them start to beat [the idol gods of the tribe] and all the others, I fell to the ground. It got to be pretty dark out there and I don't know whether you saw that or not." Bellow actually throws the word 'beat' in there for good measure to make sure we 'get it' and it feels like he's talking directly to us, the readers, explaining the let's call it 'symbolism' of the pagan ritual. Wicked. A double shot: there's some speculation that Henderson is Bellow's shot at another EH: Hemingway, who was well known for 'going native.' That, as we say down South, is irregardless. That line about t.p. is priceless however you parse it.

There's much to commend in Henderson and much to glean from its treatment of inchoate loss and grief at the human condition and one man's rather wild attempt to escape the existential facts of his privileged life. Give it a read.

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