Book Review: 'Philosophy Made Simple'

Philosophy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga, is a novel about a widower who leaves Chicago to run an avocado farm in South Texas.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For another kind of philosophy, we turn to the new novel by midwestern writer, Robert Hellenga. The main character leaves his beloved Chicago to run an avocado farm in south Texas. The title is PHILOSOPHY.

Alan Cheuse has his review.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

Rudy Harrington, a 60 plus produce broker from Chicago and a widower with three grown daughters, hopes to jar himself back into an active life after the shocks and blows of his first six decades. This includes his wife's affair with an Italian over in Italy, and then her subsequent death from leukemia.

Rudy has a pretty sharp idea of what he's seeking. He's got a book in hand called PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE, a text written by the uncle of the Indian boyfriend of one of his daughters. So Rudy's not just off on a quest to change his avocation, but to elevate the way he sees his life and perhaps all life itself.

Going to his newfound guide, he reads the section on the manual cont (ph) and focuses on a desire to know reality itself. His first glimpse of the Rio Grande River 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 sees a mysterious light coming around the bend in the river, heard mysterious music, music soft, and laughter that ripped through the dark, except this turns out to be his neighbor's son taking his half-naked girlfriend for a late-night boat ride.

But that's all right. The novel flows along just like the Rio Grande, day or night. Carrying us and a fairly large cast of characters, Rudy's workers, his neighbors, his daughters, their friends and an elephant in residence, who paints abstract canvases, along with it.

Over the course of the story, Rudy learns a great deal about raising avocados, visits a Mexican brothel, plans a wedding for one of his daughters with a role for that artistic elephant, falls in love with the daughter's mother-in-law-to-be and studies that philosophy book as he goes, all of this making for quite a frolic in the mode of the comedy-tinged seriousness of Steinbeck's CANNERY ROW. We wonder with Rudy, and we mourn with him, and whither that elephant goes, we go too.

BLOCK: The book is PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE by Robert Hellenga. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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