Michael Hainey’s odyssey to solve the mystery of his father’s death came to an end last week with the publication of his terrific new book—don’t call it a memoir; he says he hates that description—After Visiting Friends.
Hainey is the deputy editor of GQ and a former Chicagoan. He grew up in Park Ridge. In 1970, when Hainey was six, his father, Bob, the night copy desk chief of the Sun-Times, died mysteriously sometime in the wee hours of an April morning. He was 35. After years of unanswered questions—initially sparked by a line he read in his father’s obituary that said Bob Hainey had died after “visiting friends”—Michael set out to find out more about what happened that night.
The book, ten years in the making, is part quest to unravel this mystery, part homage to the bygone golden age of Chicago newspapers, his father’s world, and part, dare I say it, memoir.
In the wrong hands, this sort of story could’ve been a drawn out, self-flagellating exercise (or worse, pity party) all too common to the genre of midlife memoir. But Hainey is a tremendously talented writer. He has written a thrilling page-turner, in a style that is personally reflective and meticulously reported. His prose is crisp and efficient—poetic even.
Here’s a sample passage in which he’s 24, he’s at a family event, bellied up to the bar with his godmother’s husband, Clarence. Their drunk talk turns to Michael’s father. Clarence waxes nostalgic about the good old days, and then tears up, telling Michael that he thinks about Bob everyday. He raises his glass, looks at Michael, and says, “Your old man.” Hainey then writes: “And in that moment, I think, I want to be that man. The dead man. I envy him. I want his power. The power, years later, that you have over someone. Still. Your absence is greater than your presence. Presence is fleeting. Presence is easy. But absence? That’s eternal. The great constant. Absence is everything.”
I caught Hainey’s appearance on Tuesday night at the Bookstall in Winnetka. During the event, Hainey, who is naturally soft-spoken, had to be told to speak up, so the crowd that filled the store’s small back room could hear him. While he was reading, he choked up at several points and had to pause. He pointed out that a group of old family friends were in the room, which made reading more emotionally weighty. At one point, a woman in the audience called out to the friends, “You all know him so well—give this man a hug!”
You can catch Hainey reading more from the book tonight (7 p.m., Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville) and tomorrow (7 p.m., Lake Forest Book Store). He and I met this week to talk about the book before his local readings.
I was really struck, first and foremost, by your writing. It’s almost lyrical.
I wanted to be a poet my whole life. I still consider myself a poet first. What does poetry teach you? It teaches you concision of language. It teaches you images and compression. I kept writing the voice that I wanted to read and that I heard in my mind.
How difficult was it to write this incredibly personal book that delves into family secrets? Were you worried about what you might find?
It’s a very personal story, but it’s also a very universal story for readers. This is, I think, one of the responsibilities of writers, to articulate for people something they can’t articulate for themselves. So whether you’ve lost a parent or you’ve lost someone in your life, I think, it’s about articulating that loss. People, they might be gone, but they never leave us. And we still carry these questions inside us.
When I find the obituaries, I’m seventeen, eighteen. And I don’t take up the quest for a good 20 years. I was afraid of what I might find. That’s why I talk quite openly in the book about fear and overcoming the fear to make the journey. We all have families, but we all have secrets. We fear going in search of the truth inside those secrets, but the reality is it’s important that the reader operates under no illusion that these things are easy. It was a ten-year process.
Without spoiling anything, when you first learned the truth of what happened to your father, did you consider scrapping the book and not saying a thing?
Sure. I will say it was a good year and half, almost two, where I was frozen. Can I, should I, dare I, bring this to my mother? What will happen if I tell them this? I’ll be cast out. Am I betraying the family if I do this? These are questions that kept me up at night. We all know what happens to the messenger.
What was your family’s reaction to the book, in general?
I gave them the manuscript last summer. It was pretty powerful. I came home to Chicago on a Saturday and I gave my mother the manuscript. Being my mother, she said, “Well, I’m not going to read it while you’re here.” I flew back to New York, and two days later she called me. I picked up the phone, and I could tell she was crying. I said, “What’s wrong?”
“I just finished the book.”
“Well, why are you crying?”
“I just think it’s the most beautiful book, and I’m so proud of you. And it’s the most amazing gift that you could’ve given me.”
I said, “Well, why are you crying?”
“You’ve brought to the surface some things from 40 years ago that I had really pushed down.”
I think you get closure, but you don’t close the door behind you. In a sense, you were able to go forward and open a new door. And I think the new door has brought our family closer.
Going back to write about the golden newspaper era in Chicago—the period when your father was a newspaperman—separately, must’ve been an interesting journey of its own.
Right. What I knew I had to do, if I was talking about my father, is I needed to bring him to life. Seeing him as a man in a world of a time and a place. So I did exhaustive reporting with his friends and colleagues. “What was the name of that bar, and what did you drink? Where was it?” You know, place is character. I needed to see him moving in that world and being shaped by that world.
Now that you’ve uncovered the truth, do you see your father differently now?
Yeah, because when I started, even though I was a grown man, I still saw him through the eyes of a six-year-old son—a son-to-his-father. I’ve outlived my father. I see him as a man who lived in the world with good traits and bad traits. But I see him as, what’s that Tom Wolfe phrase, a Man in Full. For good and bad. I see him man-to-man.
Do you see yourself differently?
Yeah, sure. All these things are identity. That’s what reporting is: Who, what, where, why, and how? They’re the great questions to live by.
Photograph: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster