Thursday, February 13, 2014

Michael Hainey's Search for His Father, Many Years After His Death "After Visiting Friends." (Oh, and He's Coming to Boswell on Thurs. Feb. 20, 7 pm).

"My search for the truth and my decision to take on my fears--has confirmed for me that all of has to choose life, that I'm trying to learn to live each day."

When Michael Hainey was six, his father, Bob Hainey, died. It was on the street, leaving his job at the copy desk of the Chicago Sun-Times. The next day, his Uncle Dick came, along with the parents. They had the funeral, and then, pretty much, it was never mentioned again. His mother Mary raised the two boys on her own, in the shadow of O'Hare airport. Having left the newspaper business years before, she found a job at a hotel gift shop.

Michael's childhood is told in sketch-like form, almost dreamlike, the way childhood memoirs can be. Even a journalist has to paint their youth in broad strokes. After all, very few of us take good notes.

And then things all change. While Michael's in college, he decides to read his father's obituaries, and they just don't make sense. There were four general-interest newspapers in those days, with both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times having sister papers that published in the afternoons. For one thing, the cause of death isn't quite right. For another, there are "friends" mentioned in the obits, and the Haineys never mentioned any socializing involved in the death. Odder still, his place of death was not on the route between the Sun Times and home. 

So Hainey goes on a multi-year quest to find out what happened. But the more clues he finds, the more confusing the story becomes. It seems as if these journalists, and pretty much everyone his father associated with was a journalist, though they would have called themselves newspaper men, have a different idea of truth when it involves one of their own.

Yes, in those days, newspapers weren't a profession but a trade, and you might follow your father, the way you would into the post office or the Ford factory. These were also the days (his dad died in 1970) when the business was beginning to change. Even into the 1960s, you didn't contradict the words of a politician or a policeman. Everyone was on the same side, fighting, well, folks who were not on the same side. And that's why it's important to note that Bob's older brother Dick was a newspaperman too, a bigwig at the Chicago Tribune.

Eventually Michael (I use his first name because there are an awful lot of Haineys in the story) heads to small town Nebraska, Ohio, San Francisco, and Wisconsin for his story.  I guess journalism really is in his blood. But for what?  He just wants to understand his father better. But as Hainey notes in the story, it's really a story about his mother as well. (Photo at right from Hainey's collection.)

Boy is this a Chicago story. And for folks who love newspapers, and I know there are a few of you out there, it's filled with fascinating details of the horse shoe copy desk, reading the upside down hot type, the various bars that each paper frequented, the smoke-filled rooms, and as I said previously, the changing self-image of reporters, making that journey from newspaperman to journalist.

Mr. Hainey does a great job of moving the story along, but he also really writes some wonderful profiles of the characters along the way. From his father's high school friend Kay to journalist-turned-lawyer who really changed his name to Natty Bumppo. Can you do that?

My go-to person for Chicago stories, Jannis, read After Visiting Friends, and also enjoyed it a great deal. Here's her recommendation: "After Michael Hainey's father dies, the then 6-year-old is given no explanation. That lack of explanation left a gaping hole inside the author that lead him on a journey of discovery, no matter the pain it caused. After Visiting Friends is part memoir and part detective story, as Hainey uncovers bitter truths about his father's past. Haunting, fascinating and elegiac, I thoroughly enjoyed this book." --Jannis Mindel, Boswell Book Company

Michael Hainey, an editor at GQ, is coming back to Chicago to promote the paperback version of After Visiting Friends, and our friends at Scribner suggested he detour to Milwaukee for an evening. He'll be talking (and probably doing a bit of reading) at Boswell on Thursday, February 20, 7 pm.  (Another photo from Mr. Hainey's archive at left.)

For more, read Rick Kogan's review in The Chicago Tribune and here's a nice interview with Hainey in, of all places, GQ. Oh, and check out Mr. Hainey's website and see how much he looks like his dad.

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