At this point everyone knows I rarely read non-fiction, something about leading a non-fiction life, yeah-yeah. When my pal at S&S asked me what I was reading I told her, “& Sons by David Gilbert.” She looked up at me and said, “that’s nice, this is your next book,” and thrust this kick-ass package in my hand. That’s how it’s done. I started it on the subway, then a bookseller at Three Lives in NYC saw it and asked to take a look, couple minutes later, “Jason, this looks great, can I have it?” I gave it up and got another one.
From the jump this is a no-bullshit story. Hainey writes for GQ and is a guy that is in love with brevity, sparse emotion, and razor-like insights. No John Irving self-indulgent blah blah. Michael was just a kid when his larger-than-life father, the newspaperman Bob Hainey, died. From a young age, it ruled Michael’s life until he figured out how his father died, and why in the obituary it said that he died “after visiting friends”. But the official story has always been that his father dropped dead of a Thunderclap heart attack, on the street. One moment you’re alive and boom, you’re dead.
I started dog-earing this book right away. It’s not a story about Michael finding out how his father really died. Okay it is, and it takes up a lot of space, and it’s the perfect engine. But this is about his mother, how he finds out who she really is, and what Michael means to her. I loved the childcare by dresser drawer, potatoes on the neck, and eggs “polish-style”, which sound delectable. Michael and his brother are left father-less, but their mother is a tough bird. When Father Clark sets up a Christmas tree at the church, and Michael’s mother tells him they are going to make a care package for a homeless person, but back then they call him a “bum”. Mom slides over a card for her sons to sign, and they don’t know what to write, “Dear Mr. Bum?” I laughed and laughed. Michael and Mom have this exchange: “where’s Skid Row?” Michael asks. “Where bums live,” Mom said. “Why there?” Michael wonders, “Because they’re lost men,” his mother responds. Like she wanted to show her boys that kindness can be a good thing, even if no one thanks you for it or see’s you do it. I loved it when Michael age nine goes to the cemetery to visit his father’s grave, a woman approaches him and asks where he’s going, “just looking” he says. “No one just looks here,” she says.
By the time Michael grows up to be a seasoned reporter, he’s tired of the party line on his father’s death and starts his own exhaustive search. At a certain point this felt like a Stewart O’Nan novel, relentless and urgent, like Songs for the Missing. In that book you turn the pages when they are about to find the girl, and then they don’t. It’s the same thing here, you think you’re about to find out how Bob Hainey died, and you have to wait. Love that. Michael searched the details in a way that would make Sam Gerard blush.
He grills his family, everyone, people his dad worked with at the newspaper, he goes to the bar where his dad hung out, and in a way lives the life his father would’ve lived. He takes his mother around to have her show him the old parts Chicago, where she met her husband, like a time machine, suddenly they are there. What Michael realizes, almost too late, is that his mother was his father too, and she held her boys close, never really caring what other people thought, but knowing she was doing the right thing. Does Michael tell her what really happened to her husband, warts and all? Does he want to? Sometimes the truth is just something that “happened.”
There are little tricks in this book that work like magic; the visits to his grandmother in a nursing home, massaging her as she’s drifting away. How his mother runs the house in the absence of a man to do it for her. This is a glorious story, it’s true, and Hainey writes like he means it.