This reading group guide for After Visiting Friends includes an introduction and discussion questions. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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After Michael Hainey’s uncle knocked on the back door one morning to tell his young mother that her husband, Bob Hainey, had died the past night near his car on Chicago’s North Side, the six-year-old Michael and his older brother Chris learned to grow up without a dad. Michael spends his childhood absorbing the quiet wisdom of his single mother and nurturing his own ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps as a newspaperman. Then when he reaches thirty-five, the age his father was when he died, Michael puts his own skills as a reporter to use investigating inconsistencies surrounding Bob Hainey’s death. In his quest for truth amidst the past newsrooms of Chicago he uncovers an enduring allegiance between his father’s old buddies, but more importantly discovers new love and admiration for his mother. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. On the first page of After Visiting Friends
, Michael Hainey’s grandmother tells him of family stories: “There’s lots of stories you haven’t heard.” What are some of the stories inside of your family that you have uncovered—or, perhaps, wish you could uncover?
2. In the course of reporting his story, Hainey learns from his mother how his parents met (at a Kentucky Derby party), and where they went on their first date—as well as the song they fell in love to (pages 27–33). Do you know how your parents met? Where they went on their first date?
3. Hainey writes about how, “After [my father] died, silence descends. Silence and fear” (page 48). And he writes, too, about his mother’s adherence to the ideal of “omertà” from the movie The Godfather
. Do you agree that silence breeds fear inside of a family? Why do some family members go silent after they lose a loved one?
4. When Hainey turns thirty-five, he withdraws into himself. He writes, “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 believe his sentence was my sentence” (page 73). Why do you think Hainey identifies so much with his father that he suffers a “functioning breakdown”?
5. Faith plays a strong role in the book. We see it in Hainey’s grandmother. We witness it in Jan Scott. And we see Hainey wrestling with his life not just in the wake of his loss, but as he journeys through life. On pages 65 and 66 he says, “I’ve often wished my faith were stronger.” Hainey also considers the parable of the prodigal son as well as the story of Lazarus. Can you talk about the times in your life when your faith was tested? What would you tell Hainey?
6. Hainey describes his mother as a woman who values her rituals and habits: She closely monitors the sump pump levels in her home (page 79); she requests that he send her the crossword puzzle from the Sunday edition of The New York Times
each week (page 80); she asks him to bring his laundry for her to wash and iron each time he visits (page 81). How do these customs bring Hainey and his mother closer together? How do they also maintain a distance between them?
7. At the same time that Hainey is trying to uncover memories, his grandmother is drifting into dementia, and trying desperately to hold on to her memories. At one point she tells him, “Absence makes the heart wonder” (page 99). Who, in your family, is the keeper of memories? Do you agree that absence makes the heart wonder?
8. Hainey spends time going through the objects in his father’s wallet when he visits his mother, listing the various cards and photographs for the reader so that they speak for themselves (pages 91–93). What details about Bob Hainey’s life can you piece together from his effects? How does Hainey’s experience in this section compare with his memory of receiving a wallet as a gift from his grandfather on page 145?
9. During his road trip with his brother and nephew, Hainey claims that a need “to set others at ease” and for “a never-ending search for answers” are characteristics of people in what he thinks of as the “Death Fathers Club.” Do you agree that individuals who lost a father at a young age often also share personality traits?
10. Jan Scott, from the medical examiner’s office, and Lynne Codjoe from Thorek Hospital are two strangers who, through their kindness and help, play crucial roles in Michael’s search for answers. Discuss strangers you have encountered who made a difference in your life.
11. Conversations with Craig Klugman (page 188–193) and Jim Hoge (pages 193–197) in After Visiting Friends
reveal a lot about the office culture of newspapers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Compare these office descriptions with offices you’ve worked in or experienced. How have women in the workplace, drinking habits, and paperwork changed from 1970 to today?
12. After Thorek Memorial Hospital asks Hainey for his mother’s approval to release his father’s emergency room records, he forges her signature to have them mailed to him (page 216). What do you think of his choice to forge the document? How does his memory on page 216 of his mother changing her signature from “Mrs.” to “Ms.” appear to influence his decision?
13. When Hainey asks Tom Moffett why he is proud that Bob Hainey’s friends stuck together to hid the circumstances of his death, Moffett replies, “It’s what a man does. It’s the newspaperman’s code” (page 232). Discuss what kind of obligation you think friends and coworkers have to the family of a deceased individual. Is it sometimes more important to preserve the dignity of the dead than to expose the truth?
14. On page 243, Hainey begins to imagine Bobbie Hess and Bob Hainey’s final moments together in brief, often tender scenes. How does the author’s choice to imbue his father’s lover with a voice show the way he comes to terms with the details of Bob Hainey’s death?
15. On the way home from his grandmother’s funeral, Hainey’s mother stops to feed Ritz Crackers to a small herd of deer. When a buck gets too close for Hainey’s comfort, he attempts to tiptoe in to rescue her, but also finds himself transfixed by this moment with nature. Do you think this scene offers a sense of closure following the funeral? Discuss.
16. Consider the passage in which Hainey visits his father’s high school reunion. The experience brings him to tears, drawing him closer to a community of people who admired the father he barely knew (page 273). How do communities throughout After Visiting Friends
offer support to individuals in need? Which communities do you identify with most in the book?
17. Hainey makes the decision to tell his mother about her husband’s affair when he meets with his brother on page 289. Can you think of a case in your life or the life of a friend when a family secret was divulged? How did different people react to the news?
18. At the end of the book, we learn from Hainey’s mother that there were other problems in her marriage that he could not perceive as a six-year-old, that Bob Hainey “had his demons” (page 298). Discuss how Hainey reacts to this information. Do the facts surrounding Bob Hainey’s death lessen the son’s view of his father or only strengthen his love for his mother?