Review: ‘After Visiting Friends’

New York TimesMarch 2, 2013 

"After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story" by Michael Hainey.

  • Nonfiction After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story Michael Hainey

    Scribner, 300 pages

Michael Hainey’s mother taught him about Michael Corleone. She loved “The Godfather,” and her favorite scene was its last one. She explained how the movie transformed Michael into the ruthless tough guy he never intended to be, and how at the end Michael devastatingly shuts out his wife, Kay. She asks Michael if he ordered the murder of his sister’s husband. “Don’t ask me about my business, Kay,” Al Pacino menacingly replies.

Hainey, who first heard that story as a young boy, never really wondered why his mother loved that line so much. He should have.

“After Visiting Friends” is Hainey’s memoir about his family, love, lies and the unexamined circumstances of his father’s death. Robert Charles Hainey of Park Ridge, Ill., died in 1970, at 35.

Whatever happened to him was supposedly quick and unwitnessed. Hainey, a night editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, was thought to have suffered a fatal heart attack on the way to his car in the early morning hours, sometime after he left work. The cryptic phrase “while visiting friends” turned up in his Chicago Daily News obituary.

“All my life I’ve felt the story I was told about how my father died did not add up,” Hainey writes. So as an adult, now deputy editor of GQ, he set out to investigate.

He also set out to write a suspenseful book, but the mystery surrounding Bob Hainey’s death poses a problem. If it were bluntly explained, it would not fill a book. Neither would the circumstances that conspired to hide what happened, although they are the most interesting parts of this story. It turns out that the code of omerta in “The Godfather,” the “don’t ask me about my business,” was part of Chicago’s newspaper world too.

Hainey’s parents met when both worked at The Chicago Tribune in 1957. His mother, Barbara, who wore pointy bras that won her the nickname “queen of the Maidenform Mafia,” had been there five years by the time Bob arrived. Theirs was the world of “crusty old guys with cigarettes singed to their lips and half-drained bottles rattling in their desk drawers.”

Maybe that doesn’t sound like a romantic atmosphere, but “After Visiting Friends” is full of love for the lost world of nocturnal newspaper work and after-hours boozing. Hainey also loves the kinds of articles his father wrote as a cub reporter, from “World’s Biggest Water Filtration Here Nearly a Third Completed” to “Roses, Quips Brighten Meal for Elizabeth; Queen Eats a Little, Laughs a Lot.”

When Bob died, his older brother Richard W. Haney was executive editor of Chicago Today and president of the City News Bureau of Chicago. This was at a time not only when night editors spit into their wastebaskets but also when Chicago’s press corps and police shared a tight, protective bond. Was it a sure thing that the police would reveal everything about the death of a powerful editor’s kid brother? Michael Hainey discovers: of course not.

As “After Visiting Friends” unfolds, Michael Hainey does some friend visiting of his own. He searches out his father’s colleagues, and he finds that they have a lot in common. They’re nostalgic. They’re a bit apologetic for the excesses of the old days. And they have amazingly similar memory lapses about how, exactly, Bob Hainey happened to be five miles away from his office when his heart attack occurred. Nope, none of Bob’s loyal buddies remembers a thing.

Some of Hainey’s research is basic and productive. A look at his father’s death certificate reveals that a heart attack was not the cause. Some is more sentimental. Michael looks into his father’s hometown, McCook, Neb., where the tourist attractions include “Store Where Kool-Aid Was Developed”; Grandfather Hainey was a railroad man; and Bob edited his high school newspaper, The Bison. And some is touching, but not really part of the book’s central detective story. Hainey devotes much space to his deteriorating grandmother, who did have a gift for straight talk. “Absence makes the heart wonder,” she once said, neatly anticipating what “After Visiting Friends” would be about.

Finally, when Hainey can stall no longer, he tracks down people who care more about his quest for the truth than about the father he lost. Look, it was a different time, Michael is told. Sure, we knew what happened, but why would we tell? How would you like to be the guy who found Bob Hainey and cooked up an explanation for his death?

Actually, Michael Hainey would like to be that guy. He writes long, italicized, dialogue-filled passages imagining what his father’s last hours were really like.

The book’s frustrating circuitousness is offset by Hainey’s efforts to touch on a story bigger than his own and explain what the cliched corruption of “the Chicago Way” meant to the news. He describes how Bob Hainey died at a time of irrevocable change, when old-time newsmen were fast becoming dinosaurs and violence surrounding the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention began to break up the beautiful friendship between reporters and the police.

What should he say about all this to his mother, Hainey ultimately wonders? That question gives his book a little last-minute drama, but it’s a contrivance. Barbara Hainey understood Michael and Kay Corleone. That’s a good reason to think she understood Bob Hainey too.

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