“Henry, Himself” by Stewart O’Nan; Viking Publishing; April 2019; 384 pp; $27
By Ann Jonas
Author Stewart O’Nan, a writer adept at creating authentic characters, has recently published his 17th novel, an insightful narrative chronicling the life of an ordinary man who is reflecting on his life as the 20th century is coming to a close.
It is 1998 and Henry Maxwell is 74 years old; he has lived in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh his whole life. He’s been married to Emily for 49 years; they have two adult children, four grandchildren and a dog named Rufus. Henry is a retired engineer, Word War II veteran and putterer. He is a churchgoer, baseball fan and golfer. He bemoans the complexities of the current world and worries that his life hasn’t really been that noteworthy.
The chapters in “Henry, Himself” are short vignettes, capturing life in Henry’s 75th year. From a night out with Emily on Valentine’s Day, a bird in church on Easter Sunday, fixing things at their family lake cottage, to New Year’s Eve, when Henry makes some resolutions while taking Rufus for a walk, the vignettes are quotidian but introspective.
Some of the chapters explore Henry’s early years, growing up with his sister Arlene, serving as an altar boy, taking piano lessons, and how he and Arlene came to be named: “His mother named him Henry, after her older brother, a chaplain killed in the Great War, as if he might take his place” and “Arlene was named after Arlene Connelly, his mother’s favorite singer, which Henry thought was unfair.”
Henry seems to be most comfortable and happy when he’s repairing something in his basement workshop while listening to a ballgame on the radio; he’s most uneasy when there is conflict within the family. And there are conflicts. The Maxwell’s daughter Margaret struggles with an addiction problem, and Emily finds it hard to get along with their son Kenny’s wife.
The vignettes feature much that is familiar to us about an ordinary person doing everyday things. Traditional holiday family gatherings and spending time together at the lake, dealing with the aches and pains of growing old, decluttering their basement and getting up at night to use the bathroom are all part of this absorbing book. When Henry’s doctor — a former classmate of his — dies of cancer, Henry attends the funeral and reflects on what his own funeral and the accompanying eulogy will look like. O’Nan’s writing is so introspective and genuine. Readers will not only identify with Henry, they will care for him.
Nothing very exciting or suspenseful happens in this book. It cannot be considered a “page-turner.” It is, however, a delightful tale of a good man who loves his wife and family, lives with integrity, but wonders whether that is enough. This novel has plenty of humor and beautiful prose; it is definitely a worthwhile read.
“Henry Himself” is O’Nan’s third book on the Maxwell family, following “Emily Alone” and “Wish You Were Here.” He was born and raised in Pittsburgh and continues to reside there. At the urging of his wife, he gave up his career as an engineer to become a writer and was named one of America’s Best Young Novelists by the literary magazine “Granta.” The book is available at bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.