Henry Maxwell was named after his mother’s older brother, a chaplain killed in World War I. “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 deck 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 …”
“Henry, Himself” is the new novel by Stewart O’Nan about Henry Maxwell, his wife Emily, his family and his dog Rufus, but the focus is on Henry himself, his everyday existence, his thoughts, emotions and contemplation of the past.
Mr. O’Nan has written two earlier novels about the Maxwell family, first “Wish You Were Here,” which takes place after Henry’s death, and “Emily Alone,” wherein Emily discovers strength and independence. It is not necessary to be acquainted with the Maxwell family before enjoying “Henry, Himself,” as this novel stands by itself.
Like Mr. O’Nan, Henry is a Pittsburgher. He is 74 years old, a retiree, subject to all the minor ills of old age, and living a gentle life of private pleasures with Emily and Rufus. He has been a solider, engineer, husband and father. He knows how to deal with Emily and loves her, is dependent on her practical soul and affection for him. His daughter, Margaret, is a puzzle to him. She drinks too much, is (or perhaps is not) divorcing her husband. He loves her and he loves his son, Kenny, and their grandchildren, although neither he nor Emily have much affection for their daughter-in-law.
There is a wistful tenderness to “Henry, Himself.” Its charm lies in the low-key tone of the novel, beautifully written in vignettes, about the inner life of an aging man, and the everyday events that, in the course of a year, color his life. Henry and Emily tend to their garden, drive to Chautauqua, purchase a new suit, go to a funeral, buy pumpkins, deal with mice in the house, prepare for Henry’s 75th birthday and their upcoming 50th wedding anniversary. There are countless trips to the grocery and hardware stores.
The Maxwells still go to the cottage in Chautauqua every summer, as they have ever since Henry’s childhood. “As an engineer, he had a respect for the practical that extended to every facet of living, and was happiest when he saw an opportunity to fix a problem. Not everything could be perfected, but his natural inclination — with machines or systems — was to look for design flaws and ways to eliminate them.” Henry has a list of projects to be done by the family when they gather at the cottage, and as in earlier days, he likes to sit on the dock and reminisce and daydream, sometimes about his first, passionate love, Sloan.
“Lazy summer afternoons, as heat and the scent of baking tarpaper gathered in the rafters, Henry would look up from the day’s project to watch the grandchildren swimming off the dock or the Chautauqua Belle steaming past or a majestic procession of clouds and savor the rightness of life, nodding to himself as if it were a secret. Somehow it was.
“Late in life, after his mother had died, his father cried at baptisms and funerals and sappy movies on TV, age stripping away a final protective layer. Now Henry could feel the same softening taking place inside him of helpless grief for the past and boundless pity for the world, and that was right too. No fool like an old fool.”
“For Henry, grief, like love, was a private matter. He had no use for parades or speeches or moments of silence. He didn’t need a special occasion to recall the dead. They came to him unbidden — the gunner of the drowned tank, his bloated face wavering inches below the surface like a curious fish. The bodies on the road like so many piles of laundry.”
He shared his life with Emily “the scrappy small-town girl,” his parents had hoped “might exorcise the ghost of Sloan. … Henry could see his mother’s influence in Emily’s preference for pearls and silver jewelry rather than showy gold and diamonds. …” They have been happy together but not without friction; with Emily, “everything was personal, bound up in history. There was always some ulterior motive at play.”
While “Henry, Himself” is not a great novel, its quiet, witty charm is quite wonderful, each vignette a pleasure to read. “His mother had taught [Henry] to eat everything on his plate and not complain, advice he’d followed, for better or worse, his whole life.”
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.
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By Stewart O’Nan
Viking, $27, 369 pages