Dad, interrupted: 'After Visiting Friends' a cosmic memoir of a father's death

Michael Hainey's newspaperman father died mysteriously in 1970. Through dogged reporting, he gets closer to the truth


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When you walk into the newspaper city room today, the loudest sound you'll hear is the chatter from TV screens relaying the same news the paper's staff is preparing for the next day's edition. Forty years ago, in the same spot, the noise would assault your eardrums with a clatter like a freight train bouncing on a worn track bed.

Off the bat comes the penetrating pounding of mechanical typewriters, keys clacking, bells jingling and the satisfying thumps of platens slammed back for the next line. Hanging over the brightly lit clutter along with tobacco smoke were the rise and fall of voices speaking into telephones cradled on hunched shoulders hunting answers to the five "Ws" of journalism. No email then, only a daylong game of phone tag.


"AFTER VISITING FRIENDS: A SON'S STORY"

By Michael Hainey
Scribner ($26).


Insistent cries of "boy" would pierce the cacophony now and then, the call for a young clerk, usually, without irony, an African-American kid, to run some errand like sharpening a pencil or getting coffee for an editor too close to deadline to get it himself. Himself, because there were no upper management women editors at the old Pittsburgh Press when I started on the "rim," the collection of dingy metal desks jammed together where copy editors read reporters' stories and attacked them with black pencils hunting for mistakes.

At the center of this last-chance station before the copy went by pneumatic tube to an even greater chaos called the composing room, was the "slot man." All powerful, deemed the alpha male among copy editors, he passed final judgment on the rim's work, from headlines (often rewritten) to fact-checking. It was a five-edition stretch of deadline stress and it took its toll. Slot men I knew ended up in rehab, counseling, jobs in the entertainment department or the cancer ward. Slot men deserved hazard pay.

One slot man -- Bob Hainey of the Chicago Sun-Times -- wound up dead at 35 sometime in the middle of the night in April 1970. Hainey worked the 6 p.m.-2 a.m. shift for the morning paper, the busiest time of the cycle so the Sun-Times could challenge its rival, the Tribune, when the sun came up.

Hainey and his colleagues weren't in the habit of rushing home to the wife and kids. Wired from getting out several editions, the men settled into the all-night taverns of the Loop and drank until daylight.

But in the early hours of April 25, Hainey went somewhere else -- "visiting friends," said the obituaries -- and died of a massive stroke. His son, Michael, 6 at the time, tries to fill the void in his life caused by the loss of his father with this memoir, a detective story as well as a tribute to his family who carried on, particularly his mother:

"Here I am a son who went looking for his father, and found his mother," he discovers at the end of his journey.

Although there were questions around her husband's death -- why, for instance did her brother-in-law tell her, not the authorities? -- Barbara Hainey accepted her loss and soldiered on with two young boys to rear. She spoke very little of her late husband and less of the nature of his passing to her children, but Michael remained curious as he grew up, hunting and saving material about his father including the obits in the four Chicago papers of that time,

Finally, in his 40s and working at GQ magazine, he launched an intensive search for the details of his father's death as well as his personal history, a hunt that involved unearthing and interviewing remaining colleagues, some of whom clammed up when pressed for details. Despite his shoe leather (and a very lenient employer who seemingly gave him unlimited time off), it took a hardworking clerk at a Chicago hospital to unlock the secret of the dead slot man.

"After Visiting Friends," however, aspires to the loftier goal of a search for Michael Hainey's larger role in the scheme of things, but his awkward try at lyricism and metaphysical flights for meaning distract us from the suspense of his search. We want him to get back to the digging and the discoveries. And it's his talent for inspiring that desire among his readers that makes this memoir hold our attention to the last page.

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Bob Hoover: pittbookeditor@hotmail.com.


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