AFTER VISITING FRIENDS: A Son's Story, by Michael Hainey. Scribner, 299 pp., $26.
For a child, what can be more painful than the death of a parent? Thus shattered, one's sense of security and stability may take years to recover. Even so, there's a permanent hole where love once was, a wound that never heals.
For Michael Hainey, deputy editor of GQ, that blow came in 1970, when he was just 6. His father, Bob, 35, never returned home from his late-night job as an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. His mother, Barbara, was left to raise Mike and his older brother, Chris, by herself.
Twelve years later, just before Michael started journalism school at Northwestern University, his father's alma mater, he began to wonder what really happened on the night his father died. The confusing obits he found in Chicago's papers raised more questions than they answered. Did Bob Hainey die of a heart attack, as one reported, or a stroke, according to another? Did he die outside his office or far away? Did he die alone or "after visiting friends"?
Thus began an investigation that Hainey took up in earnest only in the past decade. "After Visiting Friends," his memoir-cum-mystery, swings back and forth between past and present in recounting his childhood, relationships with his mother and other family members, and, most telling, his dogged efforts to understand the facts and context of his father's death.
Unmasking the truth may be journalism's touchstone, but when it involves loved ones, Hainey cautions, we "raise our dead at our own peril."
Since boyhood, he was haunted by the "fear of upsetting my mother, of even uttering my father's name." The result? Bob Hainey's disappearance felt like the whiting-out of a purged Soviet leader in a Cold War-era photo, or the announcement of a soldier being MIA in the Vietnam War, "missing in action" but perhaps not really dead. Absence made the father loom ever larger in the son's consciousness.
Barbara Hainey, a no-nonsense, unsentimental woman, created and solidified this paradox. Not only did she not want to talk about her late husband, but she resisted inquiries by quoting her favorite line from "The Godfather." Michael Corleone, a rebel in his youth, slowly and surely accommodates to Mafia ruthlessness. "Don't ask me about my business," he warns his wife. Likewise for Barbara, not knowing the details of her husband's death proved a useful shield against sorrow.
Like Corleone, Hainey's voice is clipped, laconic. Sentence fragments and short scenes intensify the urgency of the narrative: "In the weeks after he is dead, I sit on my mother's bed and watch as she and her brother work their way through my father's closet. Whatever suits my uncle wants, he hands to my mother and she stuffs them in her Glad bag. Black. Huge. The kind you use to get rid of the dead leaves." This is the tough-guy Chicago reporter, hewing to the facts, unwilling to smooth over the rough spots.
At times, the author also indulges in fictional scenarios, imagining his father courting his mother before their wedding or out drinking with the boys after closing down the paper for the night. Not always persuasive, they are, nonetheless, testimony to his desperate need to get closer to the enigma of his father.
While in reporting mode, Hainey tracks down his father's newspaper buddies scattered over the map. He learns about Bob as a skinny high school senior nicknamed "Bones," not only voted Most Likely to Succeed but also Best Dancer. He discovers a father who was an irreverent newsroom wit and master of the art of headline writing. He hears about a long-gone age when collusion between Chicago's cops and reporters was commonplace.
He's less successful at goading Bob Hainey's aging pals into truth-telling. With one, he's met with this hostile stonewall: "I don't think you have a right to know the truth ... Guys stick together."
Hainey's forays into the past -- beyond Chicago to Bob's hometown of McCook, Neb., to San Francisco and a small town in Ohio -- begin to seem like stations of a cross increasingly hard to bear. Is it all worth the pain, he wonders? Yet he plods on, determined to know. He's a journalist, after all.
Since this book unravels a mystery, it wouldn't do to reveal its conclusions. I will say, however, that it moves with the pace of a thriller, that it's both tenderhearted and tough. Michael Hainey is blessed with his father's writing chops, his mother's steely resolve and his own, hard-won wisdom.