Cover image for Henry, himself / Stewart O'Nan.
Henry, himself / Stewart O'Nan.
Publication Information:
New York, New York : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, [2019]

Physical Description:
369 pages ; 24 cm
Soldier, son, lover, husband, breadwinner, churchgoer, Henry Maxwell has spent his whole life trying to live with honor. A native Pittsburgher and engineer, he's always believed in logic, sacrifice, and hard work. Now, seventy-five and retired, he feels the world has passed him by. It's 1998, the American century is ending, and nothing is simple anymore. His children are distant, their unhappiness a mystery. Only his wife Emily and dog Rufus stand by him. Once so confident, as Henry's strength and memory desert him, he weighs his dreams against his regrets and is left with questions he can't answer: Is he a good man? Has he done right by the people he loves? And with time running out, what, realistically, can he hope for? Like Emily, Alone, Henry, Himself is a wry, warmhearted portrait of an American original who believes he's reached a dead end only to discover life is full of surprises.


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A member of the greatest generation looks back on the loves and losses of his past and comes to treasure the present anew in this poignant and thoughtful new novel from a modern master

Stewart O'Nan is renowned for illuminating the unexpected grace of everyday life and the resilience of ordinary people with humor, intelligence, and compassion. In Henry, Himself he offers an unsentimental, moving story of a twentieth-century everyman.

Soldier, son, lover, husband, breadwinner, churchgoer, Henry Maxwell has spent his whole life trying to live with honor. A native Pittsburgher and engineer, he's always believed in logic, sacrifice, and hard work. Now, seventy-five and retired, he feels the world has passed him by. It's 1998, the American century is ending, and nothing is simple anymore. His children are distant, their unhappiness a mystery. Only his wife Emily and dog Rufus stand by him. Once so confident, as Henry's strength and memory desert him, he weighs his dreams against his regrets and is left with questions he can't answer: Is he a good man? Has he done right by the people he loves? And with time running out, what, realistically, can he hope for?

Like Emily, Alone , O'Nan's beloved portrait of Henry's wife, Henry, Himself is a wry, warmhearted portrait of an American original--a man who believes he's reached a dead end only to discover life is full of surprises.

Author Notes

Stewart O'Nan was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 4, 1961. He received a B. S. from Boston University in 1983 and received a M. F. A. in fiction from Cornell University in 1992. Before becoming a writer, he worked as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace from 1984 to 1988.

He has written several novels including The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, The Circus Fire, and Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. In the Walled City won the 1993 Due Heinz Literature Prize; Snow Angels won the 1993 Pirates Alley William Faulkner Prize; and The Names of the Dead won the 1996 Oklahoma Book Award. Snow Angels was made into a feature film in 2007. In 1996, he was listed as one of Granta's best young American novelists.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

New York Review of Books Review

WHEN WE WATCH Henry Maxwell, an aging Pittsburgher, wind the clocks of his house forward on the spring eve of daylight saving time, we are witnessing a man at the cusp of a new century. It's 1998 and Henry is 74. A retired Westinghouse engineer, he has been married to the same woman, Emily, for nearly 50 years. After puttering in his basement with a jigsaw, cutting pieces for a spice rack that will be installed at his summer cottage in Chautauqua, he begins to move through the house, ministering to the clocks. "He wound the Black Forest cuckoo clock in the breakfast nook, waking the bird, inserted the key in the face of the grandfather clock and twisted, making the chimes ring as he brought the minute hand full circle.... Henry fixed the clock radios in the children's rooms and the banjo clock in the den before adding an hour to his father's watch and setting it on his dresser." He then turns to his wife, who is reading in bed, and proclaims, "We are officially in the future." But the future exists for Henry as if through a fogged pane of glass in Stewart O'Nan's beautifully spare and poignant new novel, "Henry, Himself." It's the present and the past that keep Henry transfixed. In the here-and-now, there are the daily household chores and repairs, the redeeming of coupons, the endless ad hoc runs to Home Depot, the doctor appointments and ferrying of attic treasures for the annual church rummage sale. There is the timeless and arcane problem of how to keep the family dog from peeing all over the tender spring lawn. Henry enjoys nothing more than being in the throes of an errand or repair, a baseball game murmuring from the radio, his hands free to mend and his mind free to wander. In those wanderings, his days of camaraderie and deprivation glimmer up from World War II, a boyhood infatuation with his piano teacher surges, and a tenderness flares toward his children, yearning for a simpler time before the onset of their uneasy adulthoods. One gets the sense that their childhood bedrooms have been preserved like museums, as a monument to hope. Returning to the Maxwell family for a third book (Henry's death presides over "Wish You Were Here" and "Emily, Alone"), O'Nan uses short vignettes to capture the seasons and events of a single year. There's a shooting at a nearby backyard gathering, the death of a longtime acquaintance, an accident that upends holiday plans, but mostly there are the quiet, unspooling days at the end of Henry's productive life. He's gone to war, raised a family, forged a career and now he tries to hold the forces of chaos at bay, whether it's a kitchen drawer that won't close right or an eyesore of an old TV antenna out at the lake house. This is a novel that charms not through the complexities of its plot but through its subtle revelations of character and the human condition. Most of us know a man like Henry - the dwindling, handy churchgoer; the dog lover; the golfer; the unassuming patriot who still enjoys unfurling the American flag at the summer house - but we know him from the outside. The gift of O'Nan's fiction is to immerse us deeply in Henry's essence, in his desire to be useful and his nostalgia for a vanished way of life, for the forgotten homespun rituals and for houses with slate roofs and ornate gables. And when we watch him winding the clocks forward, we find ourselves wishing he could hold the minute hand motionless for just a while longer. Dominic smith is the author of "The Last Painting of Sara de Vos." His new novel, "The Electric Hotel," will be published in June.



In Memoriam His mother named him Henry, after her older brother, a chaplain killed in the Great War, as if he might take his place. In family lore the dead Henry had been a softhearted boy, a rescuer of stranded earthworms and fallen sparrows, presaging his vocation as a saver of souls. Salutatorian of his seminary class, he volunteered for duty overseas, sending home poems and charcoal sketches of life in the trenches. At church the stained-glass window that showed a barefoot Christ carrying a wayward lamb draped about his neck like a stole was dedicated in loving memory of the Rt. Rev. Henry Leland Chase, 1893-1917, the mock-Gothic inscription so elaborate it verged on illegibility, and each Sunday as they made their way to their pew up front, his mother would bow her head as they passed, as if to point out, once more, his uncle's saintliness. When he was little, Henry believed he was buried there, that beneath the cold stone floor of Calvary Episcopal, as below the medieval cathedrals of Europe, the noble dead moldered in cobwebbed catacombs, and that one day he would be there too. When Henry was eight, his mother enrolled him as an altar boy, a vocation for which he betrayed no calling, picking at his nails inside his billowy sleeves through the weighted silences and turgid hymns, afraid he'd miss his cue. He had nightmares of arriving late for the processional in his baseball uniform, his cleats clicking as the holy conclave paraded down the aisle. The cross was heavy, and he needed to stretch on tiptoe with the brass taper to light the massive Alpha-Omega candle. Funerals were the worst, held Saturday afternoons when all of his friends would be at their secret clubhouse deep in the park. The grieving family huddled beside the casket, praying with Father McNulty for the repose of their loved one's soul, but once the service was done and the candles snuffed, the funeral director took charge, bossing around the pallbearers like hired porters as they lugged the box down the front steps and slid it into the hearse. Invariably Henry pictured his uncle, his nose inches from the closed lid, on a train crossing bomb-pocked French farmland, or in the dark hold of a ship, cold water gliding by outside the thin steel skin of the hull. He had so many friends and well-wishers, the story went, that the visitation-in their grandparents' front parlor, where his sister Arlene taught Henry to play "Heart and Soul" on their Baldwin-lasted three days and nights. Arlene was named after Arlene Connelly, his mother's favorite singer, which Henry thought unfair. To avoid confusion, among company his mother called him Henry Maxwell and his uncle Henry Chase, a nicety her side of the family dispensed with, christening him Little Henry. Henry-though not one to make a fuss-would have preferred a nickname of his own choosing, something rough and masculine like Hank or Huck. He thought Little Henry was bad luck, and in private moments, rooting through his father's workbench in the cellar for a spool of kite string, or of on a rainy day, hiding from Arlene in the lumber room beneath the eaves, or after midnight, climbing the boxed back stairwell with a filched sticky bun, he felt watched over by a ghost neither kindly nor malevolent, merely a silent presence noting his every move like a judge. His mother never said precisely how his uncle had died, leaving Henry, with a child's dire imagination, to picture, in a flash, a German shell catapulting a rag doll of a doughboy through the air, scattering his limbs over a cratered no-man's-land, one arm caught in a coil of barbed wire, the hand still clutching a small gold cross. On his mother's dresser, in a silver frame that captured fingerprints, surrounded by other, less interesting relatives from before Henry was born, stood a bleached Kodak of her brother on the dock at Chautauqua, proudly holding up a glistening muskie. Each time Henry snuck into his parents' bedroom to puzzle over this snapshot as if it were a clue to his future, he remarked that the fish, like his uncle, was long dead, while the dock and cottage were still there at the water's edge, awaiting them every summer like a stage set, but exactly how these facts were related he couldn't say, only that he felt vaguely guilty looking at the young and happy not-yet-reverend Henry Chase, as if he'd stolen something from him. Pedigree The Pittsburgh Maxwells-no relation to the automakers or coffee company-came from the moors of North Yorkshire, with the main concentration around Skelton. Originally sheepherders and tenant farmers, after the signing of the Magna Carta their descendants filtered into the village proper and became at first guildsmen and then merchants, one, John Lee Maxwell, ultimately serving as a tax collector and deacon in the Church of England. Generations later, an intrepid or maybe disgraced scion of that line, John White Maxwell, sailed on the Godspeed for the Virginia Colony at Jamestown, there taking as his wife the fourteen-year-old Susanna Goode. This according to a genealogy compiled by a retired pharmacist from Olathe, Kansas, named Arthur Maxwell, a pair of which Emily, whose AOL address had been included in a mass email the week of Thanksgiving, purchased sight unseen as Christmas presents for their two grown children, Margaret and Kenny. Rather than gilt-edged, leather-bound keepsake editions, what arrived by regular mail in a crushed Amazon box several days after the children had packed up the grandchildren and as many leftovers as Emily could foist on them and fled were two overstuffed three-ring binders of cockeyed photocopies riddled with errors both typographical and factual, including the incorrect year of his uncle's death. Henry made the mistake of laughing. "I'm glad you find it amusing," Emily said. "I paid good money for these." "How much were they?" "It doesn't matter. I'm getting it back." He doubted that was possible but nodded thoughtfully. "It's fascinating stuff if it's true. It says here we were horse thieves." "I'm not happy. It was supposed to be a big gift. It's too late now anyway. At this point I'm thinking I should just send them back." They'd been married nearly fifty years, and still he had to smother the masculine urge to counsel her on how the world worked. At the same time, agreeing with her too readily would be seen as appeasement, a worse offense, and so, as he often did on matters of little import, he chose the safest response, silence. "Nothing?" she asked. "You have no opinion whatsoever." He'd forgotten: He wasn't allowed to be neutral. "I think it's interesting. Let's keep one for ourselves at least." "Honestly," she said, backhanding the page she was reading, "I could do this. I'm going to send him an email." The holidays were hard on her. It didn't have to be the genealogy, it could be Rufus throwing up on the carpet, or some passing comment of Arlene's about the mashed potatoes. Lately the smallest things set her off, and though in her looser moments she freely admitted that she'd always been a terror, an only child used to getting her way, as her husband he feared her impatience hinted at some deeper frustration with life and, by extension, their marriage. In this case his hope was that she would cool off and eventually relent, that the bother of repacking the binders and running them over to the post office would outweigh her anger. Her moods were fleeting, and the man had obviously done a lot of work. As if tabling the issue, she set the box out of the way, upstairs, on the cedar chest in Kenny's old room, where it stayed well into the new year (1998, incredibly), until one day at lunch she asked if they had any packing tape. "Did you get your refund?" "Only after I bugged him a million times. He said we could keep them, but I'm not going to. He's got to understand he can't do this to people." "Right." So, his copy too. A traitor, he'd enjoyed finding out more about his Kentucky cousins, and General Roland Pawling Maxwell, the hero of Yorktown. "I didn't want to tell you, they were sixty dollars apiece. For sixty dollars, they should be nice, and they're not." "I agree," he said, honestly shocked at the price. For all their differences, they were both thrifty. "It's a shame, because there were other ones I could have ordered." "It was a nice idea." "If you want to try, have at it. I'm not doing that again." "At least you got your money back." Again, he was missing the point. She'd wanted to do something special for the children and it had turned into a debacle. He would never understand why she took these defeats to heart. There was nothing you could do about them. "I'm sorry," he said. "Why? It's not your fault. Just let me be angry. I'm allowed to be angry." He had to run out later and grab some new wiper blades for the Olds. The post office was right on his way. "That would be helpful," she said. "If you don't mind." He didn't mind, though, alone in the Olds, cruising down Highland with the defroster going, he glanced over at the box on the seat beside him and frowned as if she'd tricked him. Near Miss He'd lived in Highland Park his entire life, so he could be excused if he thought of the stop sign at Bryant-installed over a decade ago-as new, but in truth, that afternoon he never registered it. He was still picking at the knot of Emily's unhappiness when he realized a school bus was pulling out in front of him, tall as a boxcar, and that he'd ram it broadside if he didn't stop. Too late, the driver saw him and honked, and at the last second Henry jammed on the brakes. The tires screeched and the nose of the Olds dove. The box flew off the seat, smacked the dash and bounced around the floor. He was short by a couple of feet. He was lucky the road was dry. "Damn it," he said, because he was at fault. The sign was behind him. He hadn't even seen it. The driver threw up his hands and glared. "Sorry," Henry said, and held up his own as if he meant no harm. Above him, children who might have been first graders peered down from the windows, pointing and making faces, bouncing on their seats like trampolines. He was the excitement. It was on the local news every night, the old fart who hit the gas instead of the brake and ended up inside the dry cleaners. Henry expected the driver to jump out and yell at him, but the bus eased forward, clearing the intersection, and kept going. The car behind it waited for Henry to take his turn. He nodded. "Thank you." He wanted to protest that he was a careful driver, not like Emily, who couldn't see at night and four-wheeled over curbs, and the rest of the way to the post office and then coming home he concentrated, lips pinched, eyes darting to cars peeking from side streets. It was one slip, but all it took was one, and he worried that it might have happened before, he just hadn't noticed. Near the tail end of his life, his father couldn't see well. When they visited him, all four corners of his bumpers were smudged with different-colored paint. He refused to give up his license, even after being stopped repeatedly by the police for driving too slowly. After he died, Henry rolled up the garage door of his condo and discovered the whole front of his Cutlass was pushed in, as if he'd hit a wall. His father had taught him to drive in the park, on the winding road that circled the reservoir. "The more room between you and the other fellow the better," his father said. "You don't know what he'll do. All you can do is stay as far away from him as possible." Henry had tried to pass along this wisdom to his own children, but they thought they knew everything from taking driver's ed. As a teenager, Kenny totaled their station wagon on black ice one New Year's Eve, breaking Tim Pickering's leg, while Margaret, coming home late from a party, took down a section of the Prentices' fence that Henry made her pay for. He'd hoped their accidents might teach them a lesson. He wasn't sure they had. This time at Bryant he stopped at the sign. When he got home, he three-pointed the Olds at the end of the drive and backed it into the garage perfectly straight, waiting for the rear tires to kiss the two-by-four he'd rigged. Emily was at the kitchen sink, peeling carrots. "How was the post office?" she asked. "Uneventful." It was only as he was hanging up his keys that he remembered the wipers. Hide-and-Seek While Henry never considered his family rich, their house on Mellon Street, like many built in Highland Park around the turn of the century, had stained-glass windows on the stair landings and servants' quarters tucked beneath the eaves. By the time he was born, the servants were gone and the third floor given over to storage, the gas and water capped so that in winter frost rimed the inside of the panes. Here, among the dusty bassinets and rolled rugs, the banished lampshades and cast-off fashions from the Roaring Twenties, he and Arlene played house, making pretend meals in the kitchen, taking pretend baths in the tub. Queen Arlene ruled by divine right of being firstborn. According to her whim, they were mother and baby, or teacher and student, or husband and wife (this involved hugging and talking seriously across an imaginary dinner table), and sometimes they played a game in which she was the maid and he the butler, innocently replacing the rooms' former occupants. Eventually, no matter what the scenario, Henry lost interest, and Arlene would have to assuage him by agreeing to play his favorite game, hide-and-seek. He liked hiding because he was good at it. When she was at school and there was nothing to do, he practiced on his own, fitting himself into steamer trunks and wicker hampers, crouching in the musty dark, listening to his heart and the skittering of mice. He could even squeeze himself into the oven if he took out the rack. "I give up," Arlene called from the hallway. "Come out, come out, wherever you are. C'mon, Henry. I said I quit." He waited until she went downstairs before reappearing. He knew better than to give away his best places. Excerpted from Henry, Himself: A Novel by Stewart O'Nan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.