Tomorrow marks the official release of Robert Hellenga's fourth novel, Philosophy Made Simple, but I was privileged to receive an advance copy from the publisher courtesy of my Book Angel at Time Warner Book Group.
This was my first exposure to Hellenga's writing. He is one of those authors whose prose takes a back seat to the story. I rarely found myself backtracking to re-read a specific phrase or sentence in order to savor the exquisite combination of words...but that is not meant as a criticism. In fact, it's quite refreshing to be able to concentrate on the story without the words getting in the way.
That's not to say that this is a simple book (or a simple story). Hellenga has juxtaposed settings and plot elements in imaginative and satisfying ways. For example, as a native Texan I was fascinated by his introduction of Hinduism and Indian culture into the familiar Rio Grande Valley town names such as Mission, Harlingen, Brownsville and McAllen. One of the important characters in the book is an artistic elephant named Norma Jean, owned and trained by a Russian but fluent in the ancient Sanskrit commands of mahouts.
Philosophy Made Simple is the account of a sixty-year old Chicago produce merchant named Rudy Harrington following the death of his wife. Rudy is vigorously engaged in a search for the meaning of life, and has decided to seek the answer by studying the writings of the great philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Descarte, Kant, and so on. This comes on the heels of his relocation to South Texas, where he has purchased an avocado grove, a move that cuts physical ties to his previous life but doesn't even nick the psychic ties to his past.
As the title implies, this is not a serious philosophical treatise, although the questions it raises - and, ultimately, fails to answer...again, this is not a shortcoming - are serious and fundamental. Hellenga writes with a wry humor and a keen eye for detail, and almost nothing turns out like you think it will. His characters, human and otherwise, are brimming with surprise. The ending is loose and some will find it unsatisfying. Regardless, the book is a pleasure to read, even if you've already found the answers to the questions in life that matter. Or, perhaps, especially if you've already found those answers.