An endless flood of books pours into the paper. They pool in canvas-sided mail carts before being diverted into a windowless room where they linger, the literary version of an algae-covered retention pond. A few seep onto my desk, so I feel duty bound to flip each volume open and sample a few lines. That’s usually enough. Most can then be cast aside without another thought. But there are rare exceptions.
Michael Hainey’s new book, “After Visiting Friends” is one of those exceptions. I fished it from the padded envelope, turned to the first page, and began what immediately becomes a gripping real-life mystery. Three days later I looked up, finished.
In the opening lines, his grandmother tells him of an old Polish custom. On a boy’s first birthday, she explains, he’s put in his high chair and three objects — a coin, a shot glass and a crucifix — are placed on the tray before him.
“Whatever the boy chooses,” Hainey’s grandmother says, “that will be his life.” “And I?” he asks. “What did I choose?”
“You,” she says. “You slammed your fist on the tray, sent everything scattering to the ground.”
Boy, in this book, does he ever.
In “After Visiting Friends,”Hainey digs up his family’s deepest secret, so deep, none of them know it’s there: what his father Bob, a 35-year-old Sun-Timeseditor, was doing the night he died in 1970.
In bare terms of plot, that might sound unappealing — another quest in a literary landscape too pocked with ginned-up personal odysseys; Journeys of Discovery that Change Everything.
But the writing in “After Visiting Friends”is so spare and haunting, it escapes the quest trap. It made me think of Darin Strauss’ excellent “Half a Life,” another book-length examination of the scar that tragedy can carve into your life. “How many nights did I lie in bed, the sound of my little washing-machine heart churning in my ear,” Hainey writes, “trying to picture him, a crumpled mass on damp asphalt.” Your reaction to that sentence will determine whether you’ll like this book. If you nod and think, “little washing-machine heart” — mmm, nice image,you will enjoy this.
It’s almost a ghost story, chasing the phantom of his lost father, and lovingly capturing the family members he left behind, particularly his wife, Hainey’s mother, herself an enigma of silences and quirks. She empties the cubes from her ice-cube maker every night, a ritual to keep the ice “fresh” — you can’t make that up. She, as much as his missing dad, is the emotional core of the book.
One detail does border on the incredible — on the way home from the funeral of his adored grandmother, his mother sees 20 or 30 deer outside a wood, stops the car and approaches them, feeding a buck some Ritz crackers out of her hand. Now I’d never doubt the veracity of a respected journalist. Hainey, a GQ editor, says it happened, so it must have — heck, maybe it happens all the time, and readers will write in describing how they often stop to feed the deer they encounter in packs of 30 around O’Hare. But I had a hard time swallowing it.
Otherwise, the book is a credible reporting procedural, as he trudges from medical examiner to library to bar, gradually excavating the truth from the bedrock of the past. At times the task seems impossible. I worried he’d turn to the reader at the end, shrug, and say: “Nope, couldn’t figure it out.” His father is dead. So is his uncle, who stage-managed the cover-up, while his father’s colleagues, a strange cast of aging reporters, are mostly unhelpful. It was odd to recognize some of the names doing the stonewalling, such as Lois Wille, who comes off as particularly unpleasant. “Don’t call me again,” she snaps over the phone. Shame on you, Lois.
It’s not a perfect book. Some paragraphs have one sentence too many, the last — the point driven home with that one extra tap, for the benefit of readers who struggle with dimness, maybe. For instance, Hainey goes into detail about cleaning out the garbage disposal at a grocery job. “I learned early that sometimes you have to dig through garbage to get anywhere.” Yes, we get it, thanks.
I loved the first five-sixths of the book. The ending was bit Oprah for me. Once he finds out what his dad was up to that final night, his interest fixes on whether to tell his mom and what her reaction will be. I’d have preferred more reflection on whether the truth ultimately matters. I also wondered about his life when he wasn’t tracking this mystery — though that might have pierced the sealed box of family, memory and loss.
Bottom line: Michael Hainey has written a heartbreaking book, a page-turner that spurs the reader forward, spiraling in on its mystery. It is sad and lovely, catching flickers of the lost world of Chicago newspapers in the 1960s, of boozy late nights and offices filled with young people hot for each other. I imagine some in his family might be ashamed of the secrets revealed, not realizing that Hainey has dared take the hard Orpheus journey that honest writers must take, gone down to the chill of the underworld to find his dead loved one, then use his skill to coax him back to the living air, if only for a moment.
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