In “Ocean State,” O’Nan is subverting the thriller, borrowing its momentum to propel this bracing, chilling novel. Whereas thrillers tend to use murders as a prurient jumping-off point, the entryway to the reader’s pleasure — that chance to play Columbo or Kinsey Millhone in our heads — O’Nan takes his time, humanizing this story to make the hole where the victim was suitably substantial.Mary Pols, The New York Times, “A Thriller Wrapped in a Story of Sisters and First Love”
It’s May, after all, and in this part of the world the trees have started budding and the birds that aren’t extinct have started singing. What better time to read Ali Smith’s novel “Spring,” which balances its political anxieties with emotional complexity and a warmth appropriate to the season? Continuing with fiction, you might pick up Stewart O’Nan’s character study “Henry, Himself,” or settle in with Julie Orringer’s historical novel “The Flight Portfolio,” about Varian Fry’s exploits saving dissidents from the Nazis. Jennifer duBois is back, with a novel about a talk-show host who goes too far, and Laila Lalami sets her latest novel in the towns of the Mojave Desert, where a hit-and-run death ties together the stories of nine very different characters.
HENRY, HIMSELF, by Stewart O’Nan. (Viking, $27.) A novel that uses short vignettes to capture a year in the life of the Pittsburgh man whose shadow loomed over two of O’Nan’s earlier novels. Most of us know people like Henry from the outside; the gift of O’Nan’s fiction is to immerse us deeply in his essence. “This is a novel that charms not through the complexities of its plot but through its subtle revelations of character and the human condition,” Dominic Smith writes in his 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.”
The New York Times Book Review’s review of Emily, Alone is now available on their website.
Stewart O’Nan Tells a Widow’s Tale
Who is Stewart O’Nan? Over the past 17 years, he’s written 11 novels — we’ll turn to the 12th in a moment — as remarkable for their precise, economical language and depth of characterization as for the fact that each is as different from its predecessor, in style, tone and narrative approach, as if it had come from a different author.
What unites these disparate books are their themes — the fragmented and solitary nature of contemporary American life, the degradation of Rust Belt cities and towns, the slippery line between the working and middle class — and a distinct ability to turn toward the dark places from which other writers might avert their gaze. This is, perhaps, a fancy way of saying that O’Nan often veers into the bloody territory traditionally ascribed to genre fiction (thrillers, mysteries, horror, even procedurals), revolving around murders, abductions, mysterious plagues or gruesome accidental deaths, with forays into the supernatural, as in “The Night Country,” narrated by three teenagers killed in a car crash. This is a writer who, like Dickens, you can count on to kill off the little girl — a writer who looks at cars warming in suburban driveways and sees “enough white smoke for a million suicides.”