Hellenga's engaging complexities in `Philosophy Made Simple'

Review Novel

March 19, 2006|By ALAN CHEUSE | ALAN CHEUSE,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Philosophy Made Simple

Robert Hellenga

Little, Brown / 277 pages / $23.95

Robert Hellenga, one of the most widely praised novelists in America, is also, paradoxically, one of the least well-known. Despite positive reviews for his first three novels, you just don't find his name on most lists of America's most-admired fiction writers.

Let's say his name. Let's add him to the lists. Because with the publication of Philosophy Made Simple, Hellenga once again has produced a novel that adds immeasurably to the pleasures of contemporary fiction. His ability to ground his intelligence in the everyday and produce novels that are smart and intellectually engaging while at the same time emotionally compelling is a rare thing.

Philosophy Made Simple opens with some characters from his first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, going about their lives, but you don't need to be familiar with that book to follow this one. Rudy, the patriarch of the Harrington family, a 60-plus produce broker from Chicago and a widower with three grown daughters, moves from the Midwest to the farmland of south Texas. By making the leap from selling avocados wholesale to buying an avocado farm and growing them, Rudy hopes to jar himself back into an active life after the shocks and blows of his first six decades, which included an affair by his wife, Helen, and her subsequent death from leukemia.

Like Saul Bellow's eponymous Henderson the Rain King, Rudy wants, he wants. But unlike Henderson, Rudy has a pretty sharp idea of what he's seeking. Traveling south from Chicago with a book called Philosophy Made Simple, a text written by the uncle of the Indian boyfriend of one of his daughters, he's not just off on a quest to change his career but to elevate the way he sees his life and perhaps all life.

In his newfound guide he reads the section on Immanuel Kant and focuses on a desire to know "the `thing in itself.'" Not, as he muses, "the appearance of the thing ... in his mind, but the thing in itself, reality."

His first glimpse of the Rio Grande just south of his new property gives him a semblance of what that ultimate vision might be. So does an apparition one night on that same body of water, when standing on the bank in the dark "he saw a mysterious light coming around the bend in the river, heard mysterious music, music and soft laughter that rippled through the dark." This turns out to be his neighbor's son, taking his half-naked girlfriend for a late-night boat ride.

Hellenga's novel flows along, carrying us and a fairly large cast of characters with it: Rudy's workers; his neighbors; his daughters; their friends; a guru or two; and an elephant in residence, an appealing but ultimately doomed creature that paints abstract canvases.

On the way, Rudy learns a great deal about raising avocados, visits a Mexican brothel, plans a wedding (with a role for the elephant, whose Hindu name is Narmada-Jai, Americanized into Norma Jean) for one of his daughters, falls in love with her mother-in-law-to-be and studies philosophy, all of this making for quite a frolic in the mode of the comedy-tinged seriousness of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.

A few small things mar this otherwise wonderfully accomplished work. There might be one passage too many of exposition, summing up Rudy's old life and such as he enters into his new phase. Also, not all the daughters emerge full-blown into characterhood.

But in memory, Rudy's late wife seems as vivid as if she were alive, as does Rudy's still-active longing for her, and his growth as a human being relatively late in life becomes as real as the deep emotions some of the passages and scenes conjure. We wonder with Rudy, and we mourn with him, and whither that elephant goes - at least most of the way - we go too.

Alan Cheuse wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune. He is the author, most recently, of the short-story collection "Lost and Old Rivers."

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