(Michael Hainey, king of the investigative memoir.)
More than twenty years ago, as we were ratifying a new friendship over drinks, my pal Michael Hainey, then a fellow member of Spy magazine’s junior varsity and a recent arrival from Chicago, told me about his father. Bob Hainey died abruptly in 1970, when Michael was only six years old. The elder Hainey was a newspaper man, an editor at the Sun-Times. “It’s never added up to me,” Mike said. “He worked on the South Side, but his body was found on the North Side. What was he doing there? I’d love to, like, do a real investigation of it some day.”
This desire never strayed from Michael’s thoughts, and now, years in the making, comes his wondrous new book, After Visiting Friends (Scribner, out officially on Feb. 19). Let me be clear: My recommendation of this book is not forced gush on behalf of a friend. Mike’s quest for the truth about his father, and his telling of it, makes for one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in ages. In fact, a part of me wishes I didn’t know Michael because then I could have approached the story the best way one can as a reader: having no idea what lies in store.
Briefly: It’s a detective story, a hard-times story, a Chicago story, a family-sticking-together story, a glimpse of an old-time milieu of whiskey-splotched newsprint journos with an iffy code of ethics, a boom-chicka-boom evocation of the Nebraska railroad heartland of Bob’s youth, a memory exercise refracted through a poetic sensibility (Mike writes poetry, too), and, most movingly, just... a plunge into the past colored by the melancholic realization that the past is ultimately irretrievable.
Here’s a lovely little bit that’s characteristic but doesn’t give the plot away:
Life in the shadow of O’Hare. ORD—what this land was before the airport was: Orchards. Men took it for the airport’s original name: Orchard Field. The origin of ORD. Acres and acres of apple trees. As a boy, I rode my bike to O’Hare, circumnavigated its fenced-in perimeter. That’s how I found the forgotten orchards. A patch of the past. In the fall, their apples rot unwanted. All that remains.
I urge you to read on. It’s worth it.