Michael Hainey, deputy editor at GQ magazine, mostly avoids these traps in "After Visiting Friends," his engrossing new book about his father's puzzling, unexpected death at age 35. While careful not to muddy his methods or cloud his conclusions with emotional vapor, Hainey solves the mystery convincingly, but still makes the story immediate and personal and human.
Hainey's father Bob was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times who died suddenly in 1970 when Hainey was just six. But, why? The details of the death were washed over by his family. Particulars were unspoken. Questions were waved away.
In his 30s, Hainey decided to dig deeper, but wall after wall of secrecy and denial stymied his search for the truth. His mother -- Bob's widow -- offered no real explanation, perhaps because she never really asked for one. The three Chicago newspapers that ran obituaries disagreed on the cause of death. Bob's now-aging coworkers, citing a newsman's code of silence, clammed up: "I don't remember anything about that night," was a repeated refrain.
Restive Hainey was certain that his father didn't, as the obituaries suggested, just collapse and die in the street in an unfamiliar part of town. He quickly uncovered a coverup -- a deal made between Bob's coworkers and the cops, brokered by Bob's brother, to protect the young widow and her two sons from the potentially awful truth. But what was that truth?
The explanation of what happened (no spoilers here) is short, easy to understand, and increasingly obvious as the book progresses.
But what makes "After Visiting Friends" magnetic isn't so much the mystery of Bob's death as Hainey's rendering of 1970 Chicago, and the convergence of newspaper, police and political cultures. This was Mayor Daley's town, still reeling from the violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The newspaper business was vital, dirty, cutthroat. Corruption pervaded.
Hainey paints those days with a patina of nostalgia, in a way that makes them sound sexy when maybe they really weren't. Were journalists as consistently drunk as Hainey suggests they were? Did reporters really steal photos of the recently-deceased from grieving families and print them without permission? Were newshounds and cops so cozy that they'd conspire to keep details about a suspicious death under wraps? These characterizations aren't sexy. They're troubling. Police departments and newspapers are supposed to deal in the truth.
When Hainey swims delicately in the troubled pool of his family's relationships, he reveals himself as a lucid and economical writer. He doesn't weave intricacies into his prose, he just lays bare crystalline moments like this one, when he asks his mother about her one-time circle of friends:
She is playing solitaire at the kitchen table.
The shuffle, the cut, the deal to herself.
"Married women don't like single women," she says. "If one appears in the group, they cast her out.
That's when I saw that I was alone."
She looks back at her cards.
1, 2, 3. No match.
1, 2, 3. No match.
1, 2, 3. No match.
"I'll never forget the women who cut me loose," she says, not lifting her eyes from the cards.
Whether your own mother played solitaire at the kitchen table or not, these moments feel familiar.
At turns, Hainey deals an aphorism, to sometimes arresting effect: "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."
I tore through "After Visiting Friends" in a single afternoon. Hainey's words are clear, swift, colorful, precise, sometimes devastating. His story builds steadily to a satisfying apex. Some moments in the final pages, after the secrets are out, feel contrived. But they may not actually be so. Hainey's story doesn't rely on invention. His own journalistic instincts forbade that.