In 2011, Stewart O’Nan published “Emily, Alone,” a superb novel about an elderly widow in Pittsburgh. There are certain cultural expectations attached to that kind of story, and O’Nan, to his credit, indulged none of them. No heartwarming second chance at love; no glum, ominous march to the grave. Just one woman implacably following her routine, having honed her powers of empathy and observation over decades. The years can make a Dickens of us all, O’Nan suggested.
In “Henry, Himself,” a prequel to “Emily” (itself a sequel to 2002’s “Wish You Were Here”), O’Nan sticks with that strategy. Set in 1998, the story focuses on Emily’s retired husband, Henry, who seems an unlikely heroic figure, even by O’Nan’s modest standards. His life is circumscribed by trips to the hardware store, a dozen or so medications, Pirates games on the radio, rounds of golf and a bottomless honey-do list. He’s taciturn and introverted, content to let Emily gather family scuttlebutt.
But Henry has a multiplex of narratives reeling through his head. As he goes about his business, his thoughts stray to memories of the girl who got away and his Army buddies and the carnage they witnessed in Europe during World War II. He ponders whether his daughter has truly conquered her alcoholism, and if his occasional memory lapses might portend something worse. In that regard, his fussing over cabinetry and lawn care are meaningful acts, proof he’s “holding off the forces of chaos until the next time.”
After a pair of relatively weak detours into historical fiction — 2015’s “West of Sunset,” about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and 2016’s “City of Secrets,” about Jerusalem after World War II — O’Nan has returned to the mode that marks his best work, capturing America’s shaky middle class with dignity and without flag-waving hagiography or overworked meaning-making. (His 2007 novel, “Last Night at the Lobster,” is a modern classic about shift work.)
O’Nan trusts that the simplicity of his story, rather than dulling Henry’s character, will instead reveal it. Set against plain domestic backdrops, objects become practically radioactive with symbolic depth. A dusty old centerpiece evokes his mother. A useless roof aerial suggests a lost connection to his children. An ever-collapsing silverware drawer reminds him he’ll always have problems — and a job to do.
The outside world rarely touches Henry — he watches news of a mass shooting on TV, but Bill Clinton’s scandals may as well not have happened. “Henry, Himself” is a John Updike Rabbit novel stripped to its bare essence, but O’Nan’s sense of relationships is still nuanced. “Who knew what happened in a marriage, what bargains and compromises people struck?” O’Nan writes. Tracking Henry’s subtle interplay with Emily, and the unspoken mysteries that concern him, O’Nan reveals a rich inner life.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
By: Stewart O'Nan.
Publisher: Viking, 369 pages, $27.