A Memoir With a Mystery

A few weeks ago I bought and read a book all in less than a week. It doesn’t usually happen that fast with me (you should see my TBR pile*), but the reviews for Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends were that intriguing. I couldn’t wait.

After visiting friends was the phrase used in a newspaper obit to describe the circumstances of the death in 1970 of Hainey’s father, Bob, at age thirty-five. Bob left a beautiful wife and two young sons (Michael was just six, his brother, eight); he’d been a rising star in the brotherhood of big-city newspapermen (in this case, Chicago). Yet after he was gone, he was barely spoken of again.

Young Michael hungered for information about his father, but none was forthcoming; he was a teenager before he sought out the obituaries that ran in the major Chicago papers. These raised more questions than they answered (“Standing there with … my lifelong friend, I wonder what kind of friends would watch my father die. And then never speak of it again?”). Hainey went on to a career as a journalist himself, and still he let his father’s ghost lie. Until he could ignore it no longer and began a ten-year quest for the truth.

Hainey intersperses family history with the immediate tale of the search. He switches from second person (“You are being raised by a single mother. You are growing up in a house where silence is the rule.”) to first person (“When I got older, nine or so, I began to ride my bike to his cemetery. Three and a third miles, door to gates.”). He switches from past tense to present tense (sometimes in the same paragraph) in short, terse sentences that just increase the tension. Reading as an editor (I try not to do this but it happens), the narrative makes me a little nuts—but it works.

Man, does it work. It knocked me out.

Hainey has great affection for everyone in the story; his love and respect is on every page. And he writes like a dream. Speaking of a close family friend, he says,

I’ve always loved Clarence. He died maybe ten years ago. Big bear of a Polack. Clarence Rychlewski. Six-four, maybe 250. Just enormous. From the North Side. When he was in high school he was in a gang of Polack kids called the Addison Bears. Graduated high school. Got a job selling aluminum for Alcoa. The kind of job for a kid with not much behind him, but the kind of job that let him put his hand on the throat of the American Dream and squeeze all that is good out of it.

Holy smoke, kids. This is a man who feels and thinks and can write it all down. There’s an ongoing discussion, too, of what it means to lose a parent when both you and he are very young. A mystery to his sons, Bob Hainey was respected and loved by his friends; they told Michael so, over and over.

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.

But After Visiting Friends is not a tragedy. The boys grew up, did well. They are close to their mother. The story offers glimpses of a way of life that is no more, from the hard-boiled 1960s newspaper life to a childhood on the Chicago neighborhood sidewalks.

At its heart, though, is the mystery. “All my life I’ve felt the story I was told about how my father died did not add up,” Hainey writes. No, it did not. As Hainey the journalist got closer to the truth, I read late into the night, alternately angry and sorrowful for Hainey the son. I loved this book.

* To Be Read. But I bet you knew that.

 

Tweet: What does it mean to lose a parent when both you and he are very young? Michael Hainey knows.
Tweet: The reviews for Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends were so intriguing, I couldn’t wait.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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8 Comments

  1. Michelle Ule says:

    I had a terrific book on my plane flight last week–Elizabeth Wein’s “Cody Name, Verity.”

    YA, the story of a British spy tortured by the GEstapo behind the lines in France WWII. STarted slow and I was going to give up until I read the reviews on the back of the book and thought to give it another chance.

    Oh. My.

    You had to read that book all the way to the last page.

    There I was on the plane, laughing, sobbing, putting my head back in shock, with my husband glancing anxiously in my direction. Glorious.

    I reread it the next night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it!

    I’ve got this one on reserve at the library, now. Thanks. I love memoir.

  2. Samantha says:

    I’m just finishing Hainey’s book this morning. It’s so good my kids have been left to make their own breakfast.

  3. Kay says:

    Jamie, I can’t tell you how coincidental it is (or is it???) that this post landed in my mailbox today! Besides it being very poignant for me (I lost my mom unexpectedly at age 12, just after she turned 35), I recently reconnected with an old writing partner and we agreed to begin meeting weekly once again. Although Carol and I both attended a writing workshop with Elizabeth Berg last fall, we both know that nonfiction narrative is what we are most comfortable with. Whenever I sit down to write about my life, I always find myself back in the early years after my mother’s death and what it meant for me, as a female, to go through my teen years without her. I have downloaded this book and am looking forward to diving in. Thank you…

  4. Kay says:

    I loved this book! Quick moving, entertaining, great writing. So glad you mentioned it on yr blog.

  5. […] outside the American culture I’m used to—but then a friend had a book published, and there was a memoir I absolutely couldn’t wait to read, and before long that international list I had goin’ on all spring had become a little less […]

  6. […] blogged about some—Life After Life; The Best of Youth; The Round House; After Visiting Friends; Long Time, No See; Fresh Off the Boat; Now & Then; The Interestings—and have planned posts […]

  7. […] Faulkner) Accidental Tourist, The (Anne Tyler) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The (Mark Twain) After Visiting Friends (Michael Hainey) Albion’s Seed (David Hackett Fischer) Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood) All of These […]

  8. […] one looks like, check out Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club). I’ve reviewed more than one here (Michael Hainey, Eddie Huang, Michael Paterniti), and I’ve written about what makes a good […]

  9. Number 18 says:

    […] Adam Gopnik / The Table Comes First / NF John Green / The Fault in Our Stars / YA Michael Hainey / After Visiting Friends / MEM Dermot Healy / Long Time, No See / LF Aidan Higgins / Langrishe, Go Down / LF Michael […]

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Reading Around the World on 26 December, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    […] outside the American culture I’m used to—but then a friend had a book published, and there was a memoir I absolutely couldn’t wait to read, and before long that international list I had goin’ on all spring had become a little less […]

  2. By My Favorite Book v. 2013 on 9 January, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    […] blogged about some—Life After Life; The Best of Youth; The Round House; After Visiting Friends; Long Time, No See; Fresh Off the Boat; Now & Then; The Interestings—and have planned posts […]

  3. By The Bonus Round (2013 Edition) on 3 February, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    […] Faulkner) Accidental Tourist, The (Anne Tyler) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The (Mark Twain) After Visiting Friends (Michael Hainey) Albion’s Seed (David Hackett Fischer) Alias Grace (Margaret Atwood) All of These […]

  4. By Short Saturday: Memoir Reading and Writing on 7 March, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    […] one looks like, check out Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club). I’ve reviewed more than one here (Michael Hainey, Eddie Huang, Michael Paterniti), and I’ve written about what makes a good […]

  5. By Number 18 on 28 December, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    […] Adam Gopnik / The Table Comes First / NF John Green / The Fault in Our Stars / YA Michael Hainey / After Visiting Friends / MEM Dermot Healy / Long Time, No See / LF Aidan Higgins / Langrishe, Go Down / LF Michael […]