In Pursuit of a Story by Liz Baudler
It takes a while to get into the central mystery of After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story, by Michael Hainey (Simon and Schuster, 2013, 300 pages). The book opens with a boy waking up, about to go to school, and finding his father has died on a Chicago street during the night. The boy is a young Michael Hainey, now current deputy editor of GQ; his father, rising Chicago Sun-Times copy desk chief, Bob Hainey. Mike is 6. Bob is 35.
The first part of After Visiting Friends is haunting because of how the family deals with their grief, rarely speaking of the dead man, never discussing his death. It’s tempting to judge them, but after seeing Hainey’s search for his father, you swallow judgment and read on. When Hainey is 18, and a budding reporter, he goes to the library. He looks up the microfiche of his father’s obituaries, obituaries his mother says she’s never read. Three papers list two different causes of death. They all say he died on the street at night, “after visiting friends.” A sloppy cover-up, Hainey thinks, perhaps orchestrated by his uncle, editor of Chicago Today, and who were these “friends”? These questions go ignored for 35 years.
To answer them, Hainey visits his father’s friends, but the information about that night is frustratingly sparse. The slice of Chicago’s storied print history and glimpse into the bars and smoke-filled rooms of decades ago is nearly worth the read. A code of silence still sits deep in those men who do know what happened: you don’t talk about a buddy. Eventually, some do and solve a mystery of a commonplace sort that stayed buried through uncommon dedication and unearthed with even rarer pluck.
Delving into his father’s death creates an uneven memoir for Michael Hainey. So many moments in After Visiting Friends (such as the scene in the morgue when he goes to get his father’s death certificate and the clerk prays for his spiritual journey) are beautifully rendered. The ongoing tale of his maternal grandmother’s decline, the pervasive desire to be a Hainey man who lasts instead of one who dies young, and Hainey’s struggle to tell his mother of his investigations—those stories arc so well in what isn’t just the tale of a man, but a family.
What doesn’t work are the imagined instances of the father’s death. Almost everything about this book smacks you in the face with its realness in a way memoirs sometimes don’t. The clerks, the aging, alcoholic journalists, the classmates at the father’s high school reunion. Hainey’s mother, all speak with their own peculiar voice. Hainey’s prose is brisk yet descriptive, like the best kind of front-page story. So the flights into fancy, while they’re not off in their tone and don’t seem implausible, are jarring in the worst kind of way.
Michael Hainey’s mystery was a personal one, and he’s finest when he stays personal. His relentless pursuit of the truth, finding new angles in his father’s life and his own, are the stronger aspects of After Visiting Friends. At its best, it’s a poignant attempt for a son to connect to a father, and reminder that in a clan full of journalists, no secret stays buried for long.
Michael Hainey will appear with Bill Savage at the Harold Washington Library on February 25th at 6 pm, and reads at Women and Children First on February 27th at 7:30 pm.
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