Like a good ad, “Truth in Advertising” speaks to many on many levels. John Kenney’s first novel is a real feat -- witty, contemporary, complicated, rambling, affecting and yet wonderfully complete
“Truth in Advertising” By John Kenney. Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013. 308 pages. $24.99
Like a good ad, “Truth in Advertising” speaks to many on many levels.
John Kenney’s first novel is a real feat -- witty, contemporary, complicated, rambling, affecting and yet wonderfully complete. Kenney masters a layered story about a sad and struggling copywriter, Finbar Dolan, who at 40, looks to be running out of options. A smart and clever storyteller in one of New York City’s top advertising firms, Fin has the dual gifts of humility and a wit he manifests at perfect moments. You can be sad but still note absurdity when you see it. And in “Truth in Advertising” it’s everywhere. People like Fin. As he enters his destructive downward spiral, they find good reasons to forgive him.
Author John Kenney was a copywriter in NYC for 17 years. The Boston-area author also writes for the Shouts and Murmurs column in The New Yorker magazine. His writing is emotionally accurate, his humor spot-on target, his comprehension of life’s miseries well digested and astutely transferred to fiction. He’s a brilliant storyteller who’s produced a book as entertaining as it is heartfelt. And if you’re in the creative business, you’ll know he’s got that down, too. “Truth in Advertising” is the perfect title of a book that speaks for our times.
The story takes place primarily during the 2010 holidays. Just as Fin’s about to head out for a solo and melancholy vacation to Mexico, he is told he has to produce a Snugglies diaper commercial to be aired at the Super Bowl. In advertising, nothing, it seems, is over the top. He’s just made a diaper commercial featuring Gwyneth Paltrow when Snugglies comes to the firm and announces they’re ready to introduce their revolutionary, biodegradable, flushable diaper. Fin and his team settle into the assignment, bat around inane ideas and select the one that is the least ludicrous. Then they fly to Los Angeles to produce it.
Meanwhile, Fin has recently cancelled his wedding and now finds himself growing attached to a wise, likable 28-year-old associate named Phoebe. He describes Phoebe as his best friend and clearly Phoebe likes him. But Fin is helpless. Past horrors prevent him from genuinely connecting with anyone. He cannot even articulate these horrors, which include witnessing his mother’s violent suicide (she drives into a tree), his father’s endless physical and psychological abuse and ultimate abandonment of him and his three siblings and, at the moment, his father’s imminent death. He’s had a heart attack and is in a coma in a Cape Cod hospital, all alone. Fin is the only one who forces himself to sit by the dying man’s side.
Page 2 of 2 - Another affecting story in this book is Fin’s unexpected friendship with Keita Nagoi. Keita is the 12th richest man in Japan, and the son of the man who has purchased the ad agency. He flies to NYC to watch the Snugglies ad get made. Keita, who is routinely abused and publicly humiliated by his powerful father, bonds with Fin in one of fiction’s sweetest friendships.
Fin and his siblings must go to Boston to hear the father’s will read. There’s no money, only a request that they deposit his ashes in the South Pacific where he served on a submarine during World War II. This is asking a lot of four children who hate their father and don’t speak to each other. All of this takes place while Fin scrambles to produce a Super Bowl-worthy commercial.
Fin has a very negative inner voice. This personal narrator calls him Gary, a name he hates. And Fin himself is a prolific storyteller. He’s always making up stories about everything going on around him. He fantasizes. He imagines. He gets lost in that world of inner voices and secret scenarios.
A great scene takes place on the stoop of the Cleavers’ fake house in a studio lot. It’s there that Fin sits when he tells Phoebe about his mother’s suicide. Like so many of us raised on TV, he looks beyond the fake façade and thinks, “How lovely it would be to walk into the Cleaver home right now, their clean, warm, loving home.” He pulls out of this reverie and says to Phoebe, “I’m not sure you understand how much you mean to me.” She replies, “Then tell me.”
Advertising has a 360-degree grip on our reality. “Mad Men” makes art from it. And so does “Truth in Advertising.”
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.