May 03, 2013
I can’t write this review without disclosing that After Visiting Friends is my story. Or so it felt, as I read. Like Hainey, I am a member of what he calls the DFC, the Dead Father’s Club. Hainey was six when his father died at age 36 in Chicago. I was seven when my father died at 32 in Detroit. A veil of silence hung over the details throughout Hainey’s childhood. And mine.
I was mesmerized by this memoir, about a son reconstructing the life of his lost parent. Not least because Hainey’s prose is so gorgeous. Part Raymond Carver, part Raymond Chandler, with a little Nick Flynn thrown in. But also because of the similarity of our experiences. When I read this line, it made me finally feel understood: “For most of my life I have believed I was never going to outlive my father, that I would never make it to thirty-six. I believed his sentence was my sentence.”
Being a DFC member makes me the ideal reader, as well as the most exacting. I would be the first to notice if Hainey struck a false note. But he didn’t.
Thirty years after his father’s death, he sets out to discover what really happened. The story he has been told since kindergarten—that his father died on the street “after visiting friends” one night—doesn’t add up. A deputy editor at GQ, he uses his considerable skills as a journalist and some street sense to ferret out the truth. He buys coffee for hospital clerks to charm his way into their favor and get them to pull his father’s old records. He befriends soul-saving, Gucci-glasses-wearing women at the morgue. He cold-calls strangers. And sometimes, he just hops on a plane, shows up, and knocks. Like his father, Hainey learned all the tricks for getting people to talk while working as a newspaperman.
Books about losing a loved one are oddly alluring. That’s part of why Joan Didion’s two haunting memoirs about the death of her husband and daughter have gripped our imaginations so fiercely. So has Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a brilliant and more revealing book, about grieving for her mother while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. Even books about losing a parent to something other than death (such as Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) can be a deep spiritual as well as literary experience.
Part of why we read is for recognition that we are not alone. That someone else has lived the same experience, has fought the same demons, entertained the same irrational thoughts. Dozens of times Hainey verbalizes my strange childhood fears and hopes. For example, “Part of what it means to lose a parent early: You never accept the truth that they are dead. . . In your head, you always believe that . . you will find them and all your questions will be answered.” Or this: “Ever since my father has died, I’ve obsessed about becoming an orphan.” After his mother redecorates their house, he is “convinced [his father] will return and, opening a door on a home he no longer recognizes, he will believe he is in the wrong house and he will leave us.” Hainey exquisitely captures here the magical thinking of a young child struggling to understand death.
The first half of the book reads like a street-smart, minimalist elegy to the irrational mind and memory of childhood. The second half is almost like a detective story. It takes considerable talent, which Hainey has in spades, to channel Kafka and gumshoe, Paul-Auster-style.
And like Didion and Flynn, Hainey would be worth reading no matter what he wrote about, just for the style. His ear for edgy, witty dialogue is perfect. His grandmother says, for instance: “Sex is like popcorn . . . once they get a taste, they want you to keep popping. Don’t be making popcorn until you’re married. Otherwise, they’ll stop buttering it.”
The narrative sections are even lovelier. Take this one: “Chicago. I am of that place. Spires loom. The sky, a soiled shroud. Even as a kid, I knew it was my Old Country.”
And this reads like a complete poem, doesn’t it? In two paragraphs, we get a whole milieu. An era. A way of life.
He throws them back with his pals. Carps about the bosses. Cracks wise about the day, what has gone down. Cigarette smoke in the air. Jukebox. Bullshitting. It goes on this way for an hour. Maybe two. Three drinks. Maybe four.
More of the same. More drinks. More gossip. More drinks. More laughs. Blow off steam. This is what they do. Newspapermen, after their shift.
Like a poet, Hainey loads objects with meaning. For example, his mother collects matchboxes even though she doesn’t smoke. His brother keeps them in coffee cans in his bedroom. “His collections, an exhibition of her life outside the house.”
When Hainey visits the place where his father died, we all feel the satisfaction of a circle closing. “It is our human need—to circle back to the stations of our sorrow.” And it’s also a primal desire, for readers, to follow authors who take us there.
DFC members don’t hold the copyright on parental mystery, of course. Hainey puts it succinctly: “Family? . . . Secrets? Sometimes I think they are the same thing.”
The secrecy in all our families is what makes Hainey’s story universal. So maybe I should have disclosed at the beginning, not that it’s my story, but that it’s ours. Anyone who’s been part of a family, which is to say all of us, can relate.