Henry, Himself, Stuart O’Nan 2019

In this his 17th novel, O’Nan tells the story of Henry Maxwell—74 years old, married 49 years, father of two children and grandfather of four, retired engineer who had worked on major NASA projects, and confronter of what it means to get old, to lose friends, to forget why you went into the basement, to bring the wrong coupons to the store, to run a stop sign which you missed, to be unable to do the chores at the vacation house that marked the last 30 years, to feel at a loss for what to do.  Those of us, of a certain age will both delight and be saddened to see ourselves in Henry.  Some of the details are specific.  Henry lives in Pittsbugh, and the year is 1998.  He is a WWII veteran who has seen combat and lost a close friend. Otherwise, Henry is me and perhaps you, loving his wife and family, continuing to view himself as a competent player in the game of life, but beset by daily reminders that the best years are past and the future is unlikely to be a bowl of cherries.  In one chapter that rang particularly true, Henry is trying to find the perfect restaurant for his and Emily’s 49th anniversary dinner:  “They used to go to Minutello’s with the Pickerings and the Millers, taking home straw-jacketed Chianti bottles to make candleholders for the back porch, but it wasn’t what Emily would consider fine dining.  The same for Poli’s and Tambellini’s and anything in Bloomfield.  Sushi he ruled out, as well as Chinese, Thai, Indian and Mexican—all too hard on the stomach.  Of the few remaining choices , none was wonderful, and knowing it could be a mistake, rather than book something he wasn’t thrilled with, he called the Landing.”  Just about a perfect summary of my search for the perfect restaurant for a major occasion.   I had read O’Nan’s previous book, “Last Night at the Lobster” about a casual restaurant’s employees on the final day before it closes, and it was similarly low key and delightfully engaging—-not much happens but a near-perfect rendering of the small details of everyday life that in their aggregate comprise a life lived.  I liked this book very much and highly recommend it, especially for guys of a certain age.

Shop your local indie bookstore