The Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan recently took memoirists to task with his piece "Journalism is not Narcissism," which bluntly argued that "journalism is not about you" in the very first paragraph. While Nolan's piece focused on writers "who decide to base their careers on stories about themselves" by writing essays that are "confessional as attention-grabber," there is a whole other sort of nonfiction that was ignored in the piece, a kind of personal and reflective reporting that elevates the work above the sort of confessional that Nolan critiques. A perfect example of that style is found reading a memoir like GQ Deputy Editor Michael Hainey's After Visiting Friends. Hainey has given us a book that mixes his own personal experience with journalism in the most literal sense. He chronicles the painstakingly researched story that has overshadowed his entire life: the death of his 35-year-old father, the journalist Bob Hainey, in 1970, when the author was only six-years-old, and the strange, mysterious circumstances surrounding his passing. Hainley is pressed to figure out the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of this event—chasing down leads, pressing people for sufficient information, and absorbing the petty details a good reporter has to track. The book is the result of rigorous investigative reporting, but it is also by nature a deeply personal work.
The memoir makes it clear that Hainey needed to tell the story of his father's death, how the event changed his life and the lives of everybody around him. To commit those memories to paper is certainly a way to share those ghosts. But After Visiting Friends is also a book about searching. It is a quest for answers about what really happened to his father, since different obituaries offer conflicting accounts of what exactly Bob Hainey was doing in his final moments. When he was in high school, Hainey visits the library and decides to look over these obits for the first time (something his mother said she never even bothered doing). What he finds is that all of the obituaries tell different stories—they don't even agree on where his father passed away. That moment in the library sets the young man off on a long mission to find out the truth. Who were the "friends" his father was visiting when he died, and why did his uncle—also a newspaperman—tell Hainey's family a story that contradicted so many others? Why was the death of a respected Chicago journalist, who had worked his way from rural Nebraska through the ranks of one of the most well known newspapers in America, so difficult to explain? And why had the truth been hidden from his son all these years? These are just some of the questions that drive After Visiting Friends.
Hainey's search takes him to his father's hometown of McCook, Nebraska. He tracks down his father's old newspaper colleagues, who are scattered across the middle of country, and tight-lipped about the night Hainey's father died. Throughout the book, we see Hainey routinely leaving his home in New York City for his native Chicago, all in hopes of uncovering the lost timeline of his father's last night. Hainey eventually finds out the truth he was looking for, but wrestles with having to tell his taciturn mother, with whom he already has a strained relationship.
Chicago plays a key role in After Visiting Friends. As the author puts it, with a hint of Bellow, "Chicago, I am of that place." His hometown is almost as big a character in After Visiting Friends as any person, although the people Hainey writes about loom large too. There's the fraternity of hardboiled reporters from the Chicago Tribune, Daily News, Today, and the Sun Times—the ones who meet and drink whiskey with Hainey at 11 in the morning but who stonewall him for information due to some unspoken newspaperman code of honor. Meanwhile, Hainey searches degraded files hidden in government buildings and ventures into the medical examiner's office, a "hulk of concrete" that must have once concealed more than just his father's time and cause of death.
Hainey obviously longs for a father who died too young, but After Leaving Friends isn't saccharine or self-indulgent. There is no air of self-pity in Hainey's beautifully written book. Rather, it subtly works passages about growing up without a father into its more tactile passages of reportage. Hainey eventually follows in his father's footsteps, going to the same journalism school and working in the same newspapers and magazines. But he is clearly in possession of his own writing style. Hainey's sharp prose and attention to detail are impeccable (from going to his father's Nebraska hometown and noticing the two kinds of coffee available, "REGULAR" and "MIDWESTERN," to his description of his father's coffin looking like a Buick that was "Beer bottle brown with a black hardtop."), and his narrative is magnetic, drawing us in to his father's story. His perusal of the facts is suspenseful, but it is also moving—it is hard not to feel the anguish caused by newly resurfaced memories that weave in and out of the story. Hainey clearly relates his sadness and his struggle, and we readers root for him. We want Hainey to find the truth that will finally bring him peace, even as we don't want Hainey's marvelous exercise in journalistic memoir to come to an end.
Jason Diamond is the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Managing Editor of Flavorpill New York.