In 1970 when his father died, Michael Hainey was six years old and too young to ask questions.
His father, Bob, 35, had dropped dead of an apparent heart attack on the street on the way home from his night shift at the Chicago Sun-Times where he was the night slot on the copy desk. He left behind a wife, Barbara, Michael and his older brother, and a secret.
It wasn’t until many years later, still feeling a loss he couldn’t explain, that Michael began looking into his father’s sudden death and didn’t like what he found. He writes his story in a sometimes moving, sometimes frustrating but straight-up honest memoir, “After Visiting Friends.”
According to the family story, Bob had died on the street between the Sun-Times building and his car. Newspaper articles, however, named the street where his lifeless body was found and it is not anywhere near the route he’d take from work to home. One obituary said Bob had died “after visiting friends” which really confused Michael. He wanted to know who these friends might be and what they couldtell him about the father he scarcely remembered.
A journalist in his own right, Hainey knows how to go after a story. It isn’t long into his investigation before he starts finding inconsistencies. Old friends of his father stonewall him or cut short interviews abruptly. There’s either nothing, or something buried, and Hainey’s instinct tells him there’s something buried.
Starting the investigation with his mother, who raised the two boys on her own, he crosses the country over several years, going from his adopted town of New York City, where he is an editor at GQ magazine, to Chicago to the small town in Nebraska where the oldest residents still remember Bob, to various papers where his former coworkers had scattered over the decades. Each interview getting him closer to the truth.
Hainey structures the book like a noir detective novel, even in the writing. He writes choppy, short sentences.
Sometimes, I half expected Sam Spade will burst into the room with gun blazing looking for some dirty, no-good dame. While I’m criticizing: Long fantasy passages where he reconstructs scenes and conversations that may have happened, or never could have, detract from the momentum of the book, which does have, underneath these poor writing choices, a beating human heart. Last quibble: Hainey could not have been as naive as he presents himself in the book. He must have had something in mind as to what, if anything, was his father’s secret or he wouldn’t have started his search.
I connected with this book for a lot of reasons: I, too, was six in 1970. My family (like the Haineys) is of Polish descent and I could point to people in my life who are just like ones he describes. He, like I, had a special relationship with a grandmother, whose life peters out over years. I, too, had a father with a secret. As a former night slot editor at a major metropolitan daily, I know the world he vividly describes when talking about his father. Though that era and that type of newspapering has long been gone, it’s something I experienced to a lesser extent and heard about from coworkers.
Hainey thinks knowing his father’s story will provide healing he feels he needs to move forward in his own life. But then what does he do with that knowledge? Does he tell his brother or, worse, his mother? Is there value in knowing the truth even if it can’t change anything? For Hainey, the answer to those questions is yes.
Perhaps that is the only answer.