Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Henderson the Rain King" Considers His Shiftless Son in Malibu

I'm starting a longer piece on Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellows' rambunctious 1958 novel, but wanted to throw out an appetizer here while I'm working out what I want to say about the rest of it. As Bellow's antihero tries to size up his life, he also describes and bemoans the lot of his seemingly clueless children. Here, waiting in the dentist's office to get a bridge repaired (dental work figures amusingly -- and cringingly -- in the overall story) is how Henderson thinks about his eldest son Edward, a roustabout who has a red MG (bought by Dad) and "thinks himself better than me."
The most independent thing this kid had ever done,' according to EH, was "dress up a chimpanzee in a cowboy suit and drive it around New York in his open car. After the animal caught cold and died, he (Edward) played the clarinet in a jazz band and lived on Bleecker Street. His income was $20,000 at least, and he was living next door to the Mills Hotel flophouse where the drunks are piled in tiers."

Anyway, my favorite part of this section is where he remembers later visiting the shiftless Edward in California:

"I found him living in a bathing cabin beside the Pacific in Malibu, so there we were on the sand trying to have a conversation.
The water was ghostly, lazy, slow, stupefying, with a dull shine. Coppery. A womb of white. Pallor; smoke; vacancy; dull gold; vastness; dimness; fulgor; ghostly flashing. 'Edward, where are we,' I said. 'We are at the edge of the earth. Why here?' Then I told him 'This looks like a hell of a place to meet. It's got no foundation except smoke. Boy, I must talk to you about things.'"

Ah, the Midwesterner's aversion to the coast, to all things Californian. Has there ever been a more damning description? I can't help but smile. Yes, the dangerous, slothful beaches. The decadence. The insidious opposite of Henderson's raw vigor.

And what about those semi-colons? Why did he use commas in the first series, but dragged us through those heavy semi-colons in the second? I think, as Philip Roth wrote in a 2005 memorium analysis, that Bellows "breaks loose from all sots of self-imposed strictures, the beginner's principles of composition are subverted, and...the writer is himself 'hipped on subperabundance.'"

But my sister and brother Midwesterners, what of California?

No comments: