When Michael Hainey was 6 years old, his father died on a Chicago street late one night. A rising star at the Chicago Sun-Times, Bob Hainey was a well-liked and respected member of the press in the days when being a newspaperman was to be a member of a hard-working, hard-drinking brotherhood.
As Hainey grew up and became a journalist - he's now the deputy editor at GQ - the gnawing sense of loss over his father was intensified by certain pieces of missing information and inconsistent accounts of what happened the night of his death. Finally, for his own peace of mind - and in spite of what could be potentially devastating information for his mother and brother - Hainey set out to uncover the truth about that evening.
"After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story" (Scribner, 300 pages, $26) is Hainey's astonishing account of those efforts. The title, taken from the police reports and obituaries as to when his father passed that night - "after visiting friends" - is ultimately a euphemism that doesn't begin to capture an incredibly complicated backstory.
Jumping back and forth in time and tense, Hainey's narrative investigation is blended with well-written memory snapshots, anecdotes and biographical spin-offs. The book becomes not only a memoir of Hainey's own life, but also a more general study of how the mind works and how we take comfort from or are protected by our memories.
Ultimately, though, Hainey discovers the truth. He also solidifies a bond with his mother and realizes how brave and devoted she has been all along.
Last week, Hainey answered five questions about "After Visiting Friends."
Q. Once you committed to a full-on investigation to find out what happened the night your father died, it required extensive conversations with the career journalists who were his colleagues and friends. You ran into a wall of half-truths, denial and even misdirection. Despite your own career as a journalist, were you surprised by the almost mafia-like spirit of omerta in the newspaperman brotherhood?
A. I was surprised in the moment, but, when I stood back and looked at it and the motivation, I'm not surprised. It's not about being a journalist or being in a certain profession, it's about people and friendship. These were people who knew my father or my mother or both, and one of the reasons I think the book resonates is that you can see yourself in that role. They were being protective in a moral situation.
At first I couldn't believe they wouldn't tell me, but ultimately they were trying to protect me and my mother.
Q. The book is beautifully structured and beautifully written. I suppose you could have just done the book in a straight chronology, but it seems there was no way you could have outlined the book; you basically had to do all the detective work and then figure out how to present it, right?
A. Yeah, it's pretty intricately structured. It happens as it went: I was writing the book as I was living it and reporting it - and things happened. My grandmother was alive when I started and died in the process, so that became part of the story. I also wanted to cross-cut with my memories and be very careful about where they landed because of the implications to various people. I had to figure all of that out. I went through three versions just to come up with the structure that allowed me to jump back and forth and not lose the journey and confuse the reader.
Q. One of the results of that structure is the bounty of biographical associations that might not have anything to do with the core focus of the book. Your evocative descriptions of certain memories that were triggered as you dug through your history - by songs or photographs or conversations - in turn inspire in readers a similar set of melancholy and/or fond reactions that maybe haven't surfaced in a while. Were you aware that the book might have that sort of ripple effect on readers?
A. A lot of the book is wrestling with memories of our own life and of loved ones we've lost. In that Proustian way you hear a song that transports you back to some place or some time, it's fascinating to me ... the memory of when you first heard something and also why it still resonates. In a way, I wanted to capture how the mind works. Maybe a song reminds you of something that happened 40 years ago, but you hear it today and instantly you're 14 again.
That's also why I kept switching tenses. So many times when someone's telling a story about something that happened years ago, they start in the past tense and flip into the present tense because it's like they're there again, experiencing it again for the first time.
Q. A two-part question: you were compelled for years to dig into this story. Were there any books or memoirs you read along the way that inspired you or strengthened your resolve to find out what happened to your father? Also, once you did decide to write it, were there any biographies or memoirs you sought out as examples or templates?
A. I wish there were. I never really found any. ... At the same time, I wasn't searching for a template because I felt like I had to create something of my own - not just to discover what happened that night but also how I thought ... I avoided reading anything that I thought could sort of affect me or cross-pollinate into what I was doing. I didn't want to be compromised.
Q. On a more whimsical note, you're the deputy editor at GQ magazine. If it's after work, would we ever see you on the streets of Manhattan in a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, or wearing a ballcap with a beer logo on it? Or are such things simply not allowed for a GQ staffer?
A. I actually wear a tie on weekends! But that's because it's how I'm comfortable. Style is personal. If you feel comfortable and you own it, that's your style. If I wore a sweatshirt with no sleeves, I'd feel uncomfortable. But there are plenty of guys in my office who could or would do that. We have plenty of different styles.