Book review by Eric Sandberg — Master of the Mundane: Stewart O'Nan - Henry, Himself
Since 2002 Henry Maxwell has loomed large as a literary character without actually appearing in a book. Henry is first mentioned in the opening pages of O'Nan's novel Wish You Were Here. In this book, which takes place a year after Henry's death, we learn about Henry obliquely, as if the words are separated and arranged to form a white silhouette of him on the page.
The central theme of Wish You Were Here is the impact of Henry's absence on his family: Emily, his wife of fifty years, his older sister Arlene, his grown children Kenny and Margaret and their children. The family is gathering for one last summer at their cabin in Chautauqua, a tradition dating back to Henry and Arlene's childhood.
Wish You Were Here continued a subtle shift in O'Nan's approach to his particular brand of storytelling begun in his previous novel Everyday People. Up to this point O'Nan had garnered a reputation as a master of literary horror. Not the kind of horror that his friend Stephen King churns out like regular issues of a comic book, but more of a modern take on the horror of Edgar Allen Poe - the sort of horror that inhabits our daily lives - the horror derived from our poor choices, our disappointments and denials that we subconsciously run from and inevitably are forced to turn and face
Stewart O'Nan with Stephen King — Go Sox!
O'Nan's first novel Snow Angels (later adapted as a film starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell) starkly deals with a heart-wrenching series of tragedies in a bleak, small Pennsylvania town, while his third novel The Speed Queen has the narrator describe her own murderous crime spree (to Stephen King via cassette recordings) while simultaneously absolving herself of her actions.
O'Nan's examinations of the nature of evil achieved a new level of sophistication and profundity in his 1999 novel A Prayer For The Dying. Set in the backdrop of fire and plague A Prayer For The Dying chronicles one man's descent into a literal and figurative Hell and is required reading in some college Literature and Psychology courses.
With Wish You Were Here O'Nan laid claim to a new title - master of the mundane. Not a lot happens in its 517 pages - no crime sprees (well, maybe one small one), wars or murders - just a family coping with the loss of a patriarch and their stories of disappointment and hope. It is an engrossing read. "Stewart O'Nan sees with a vengeance" one New York Times reviewer wrote early in O'Nan's career, and see he does - all the humdrum details that make a life.
After four more acclaimed novels, including the bestseller Last Night At The Lobster, O'Nan decided to check in on Henry's widow. Emily Alone finds Emily Maxwell ten years on from Henry's death and struggling with a creeping sense of 'what was it all for?' as her kids and all the families of her Pittsburgh neighborhood have long since moved away or died, her children's lives in chaos. When her only friend/sister-in-law/nemesis Arlene suffers a stroke she is jarred from the monotony of her life into making a bold move.
But what of Henry? The specter of the late Henry Maxwell is the driving force behind two critically acclaimed and popular novels. Who was he? In O'Nan's forthcoming sixteenth novel (excluding a collection of short stories and two non-fiction books) we finally meet Henry, himself, and he's not a terribly interesting guy. It is, in fact, Stewart O'Nan's great gift as a writer that he can make the last good year of a boring man's life so compelling.
Henry, Himself provides the reader with a glimpse of the Maxwell clan intact, Henry is in relatively good health (if not in good shape) in the year he turns seventy-five. Readers familiar with the other two novels in this trilogy will feel an added sense of tension as they try to piece together the timeline between this story and the first book. I won't give anything away except that the final paragraphs are among the most poignant I have ever read.
The book unfolds in a series of self-contained short stories ranging in length from two paragraphs to eight pages. Many chapters focus on such earth shattering topics as a broken garbage disposal, a basement drain crisis, dead grass patches from dog pee, rodent infestation and a gift left in a toilet bowl.
Midway through the book, as each prosaic aspect of Henry's routine is revealed, I become paranoid that O'Nan has been secretly remote viewing my own life, so keen and universal are his observations. Like a good stand-up comic, O'Nan turns a trip to the john into comedy gold, except we're not laughing.
Each episode, many of which revolve around holidays, anniversaries and birthdays, tell us more about Henry and, by proxy, ourselves. The narrative style only becomes tedious in one chapter which goes into excruciating detail about all eighteen holes played at a Putt Putt golf course in Chautauqua. The segment tells us nothing we don't already know about the characters and has thoroughly cured me of any nostalgic notion of going putt putting the next time I visit my father on the Outer Banks.
What's most fascinating and ironic about Henry is his seeming detachment from his own family, their foibles and crises, preferring that Emily bear the brunt of their alcoholic daughter's misadventures, and his hesitancy to broach the subject of a crumbling marriage with his son-in-law. Henry bonded his family more through a strict adherence to tradition than he did by being emotionally available to them.
Strewn throughout are Henry's reminiscences from his own childhood, his job as an engineer on an important project which was ultimately shelved, a previous, heady love affair before he met Emily, and perhaps most telling, his experiences as a foot soldier in World War II. His ability to detach from his grim experiences in Europe informs his emotional remoteness from his family.
Henry, Himself is a satisfying and hopeful rumination on the human condition as only Stewart O'Nan can write it. It is not absolutely necessary to read the other two books before reading this one. Knowing what happens in the future is almost a distraction from the story being told here but that knowledge most certainly enhances the poignancy of its conclusion
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.