Robert Hellenga
New York: Back Bay Books, 2006
ISBN # 13-978-0-316-01334-5
277 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2009

Rudy Harrington is at a period of life crisis. His beloved wife died some seven years earlier, and all his three daughters now live away from the family home, the youngest about to be married.

Rudy has been an broker of avocado sales, but living in his Chicago area home. He is at sea, and first turns to the wisdom of the west to help him out. His daughter is marrying an academic whose father is a well-known philosopher, albeit a bit of a “pop” philosopher. The philosopher, Siva Singh, Indian by birth, has written a very popular book, PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE, which does lots of comparison of western and Indian philosophy, a sort of introductory level text.

Rudy is convinced he needs some major change in life, wants to pursue a notion of “meaning,” and while challenged and enriched by his reading of the early chapters of Singh’s text, realizes in his gut that he needs a change. Change of location, situation, everything. Just at that time one of his key supplies of avocados dies, and the man’s wife suggests to Rudy that he purchase the Arizona farm and become an avocado farmer. Without any consultation with his daughters or anyone else, Rudy make the purchase and quickly moves to rural Arizona, to a farm along the Rio Grande. Huge changes are in process.

The novel is a delightful read. Rudy tries his best to think through the major issues of the history of philosophy as sketched by Singh. He realizes he is sort of a Platonic personality while his beloved wife was more Aristotelian, following the basic dichotomy of philosophy systems as preached by Singh.

Author Hellenga introduces some quite bizarre notions into the novel, yet they seem to work, making the story quite unique. Among the characters who hang around the area is a Russian fellow who owns a real live Indian elephant, and the elephant paints, providing his owner with a decent income from the paintings. Rudy himself buys several for his new home. Further, and coincidently useful, this community of southern Arizona has a noticeable east Indian presence, people who fit in well with all the son-in-law-to-be’s family which is coming to Rudy’s home for the wedding.

The novel is lots of fun and has marvelous plot twists. However, in the main it is the story of someone seeking meaning is his “later” life. I put the “later” into parentheses since one of the most startling features of the novel is how young Rudy his, and how young his wife was when she died. He’s just 60 and she died when she was just 52. Given that I’m 70, the fact of the main character, presented as sort of an “old” guy seeking meaning after his “life-long” wife died, struck me as a rather comical device.

Robert Hellenga tells a marvelous and crazy story. It requires the full willingness of the reader to suspend disbelief and just go along for the delightful ride. I did and had lots of fun. As a former professor of philosophy I have to reveal that the philosophical reflections which Rudy pursues, are, as one my well expect, at quite the superficial level, but Hellenga never pretends that Rudy isn’t just a beginner. However, the character of the famous philosopher, Siva Singh, was disappointing, him revealing himself to be a bit of a fake, presenting oversimplified philosophical ideas as something profound, and doing it for rather base reasons, even being proud of his light-weight hoax.

Along the way we are treated to a great character in Rudy’s foreman, the delightful Mexican-American Medardo and his friends, and the whole novel has a subplot of Rudy’s utter obsession with an affair his wife once had with a fellow in Italy.

I came across the book by accident and had some laughs about the accident. I was at a book fair that had hundreds of thousands of books and they were divided into categories. I was in the section of novels. When I saw the title “PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE” I giggled out loud, picked up the book and said to the strange next to me at the bin, “this is funny, they put a philosophy book into the section of novels.” When I noticed the author’s name it didn’t hit me that this was the author of THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES, a book I had reviewed a number of years ago. But it did strike me this wasn’t the author of the philosophy text of the same name which I knew. When I checked the back cover I saw it was a novel, thus in the proper bin, and I just had to read it.

This turned out to be a felicitous error on my part and I was treated to a very pleasant, even touching and funny novel of significant creativity. I recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett