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Originally published Sunday, April 7, 2013 at 5:31 AM

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‘After Visiting Friends’: the mystery of a father’s early death

In his new memoir “After Visiting Friends,” Michael Hainey recounts his search for the truths behind the premature death of his father, an iconic Chicago newspaperman, at age 35.

Seattle Times assistant features editor

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‘After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story’

by Michael Hainey

Scribner, 320 pp., $26

One April morning in 1970, a 6-year-old Michael Hainey and his older brother came downstairs to the news that their father, a hard-drinking newspaper man on the night shift, had been found dead on the street hours earlier. He was 35.

There is an official story — natural causes, alone — but minor inconsistencies in obituaries of his father eventually lead Hainey to pull on the strings around the edge of that version, which his mother has seemingly internalized.

“The story never makes sense to me. Not that I say that to her,” he writes in his memoir, “After Visiting Friends,” “But there are holes.”

The book is the story of Hainey’s attempts to peer through those holes, into the past, and make sense not only of his father’s death but the family and sons it left behind. What emerges is a portrait of his father as a man with magnetic charisma — a fast rising star in the Chicago press — but also with secrets around the darker edges of his personality.

Like many tales of missing parents, this is one about an absence so palpable it becomes a presiding presence. And while he does not say so explicitly, it soon becomes apparent that his father’s death is the defining event of Hainey’s life. As he puts it, “We without fathers must out of necessity create ourselves.” The investigation becomes both a process of Hainey creating himself and a way of communing with the man he knew only very little.

Now deputy editor of GQ, Hainey pursues the classic reportorial lines of inquiry. What happened? How did it happen? Who was involved? Why did it happen? “Surely there must be a why,” Hainey writes. “Dig deep enough and you will find it. A newspaperman knows the why is the key to the story.” And the most difficult to glean.

Hainey interviews his own family members and any surviving colleagues of his father’s he can find. It’s these journalists who prove the most adept at keeping the truth from him. He attends his father’s class reunion and haunts the records halls of Cook County.

The writing in “After Visiting Friends” is often moving, and there is a real sense of Hainey grappling with the loss of his father and his own sense of self — as when Hainey contemplates keeping from his older sibling what he discovers to be his father’s secret. “So often I wonder,” he writes, “Do all brothers end up at Kitty Hawk? Flipping a coin to write history. One will fly. The other stands slack-jawed with awe. Maybe chasing his brother. The wind in his face now. The wind that lifts his brother.”

In the course of his journey back through the sodden and yellowed newsrooms and barrooms of 1960s Chicago, Hainey does find out, to the extent that they can be found out, the circumstances of his father’s death. (The story has shades of Brendan Behan’s vignette, “The Wake.”) But what is striking is the lengths to which many of the people who know the real story labor to keep it untold.

As Hainey points out: “We all say we want The Truth, but we all want our secrets kept.” Even newspapermen.

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