Soldier, son, lover, husband, breadwinner, churchgoer, Henry Maxwell has spent his whole life trying to live with honour. 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 any more. 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?
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.
O'Nan's elegiac companion piece to his 2011 novel, Emily, Alone, follows Emily's husband of 49 years, Henry Maxwell, who, at 75, suffers from variety of physical ailments. The year is 1998 and readers follow Henry and his family from Valentine's Day to New Year's Eve as they celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, observe annual traditions, and spend the summer by the lake. Henry and Emily grapple with their two adult children, Margaret and Kenny, their respective spouses, Jeff and Lisa, and their grandchildren. Nothing especially dramatic happens, except, maybe, when Margaret, who is a recovering alcoholic, gets into an accident right before Thanksgiving and Emily rushes to be with her, leaving Henry to serve the holiday feast to the rest of his family on his own. A member of the "Greatest Generation," Henry deals with his own growing sense of mortality, but he does it with a rare grace that endears him to the reader. The author evokes Henry's middle-class Pittsburgh existence like a Keystone State Joyce. One would have to go back to Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge to find a literary marriage bookended in such a perceptive fashion.