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FINBAR DOLAN is lost and lonely. Except he doesn't know it. Despite escaping his blue-collar Boston upbringing to carve out a mildly successful career at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he's a bit of a mess and closing in on forty. He's recently called off a wedding. Now, a few days before Christmas, he's forced to cancel a long-postponed vacation in order to write, produce, and edit a Super Bowl commercial for his diaper account in record time.
Fortunately, it gets worse. Fin learns that his long-estranged and once-abusive father has fallen ill. And that neither of his brothers or his sister intend to visit. It's a wake-up call for Fin to reevaluate the choices he's made, admit that he's falling for his coworker Phoebe, question the importance of diapers in his life, and finally tell the truth about his past.
"Truth in Advertising "is debut novelist John Kenney's wickedly funny, honest, at times sardonic, and ultimately moving story about the absurdity of corporate life, the complications of love, and the meaning of family.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-10-08
- Reviewer: Staff
The debut novel from New Yorker humorist and former advertising copywriter Kenney is a hilarious ad-world satire and a modest family drama. Finbar Dolan has a successful career in commercials, managing a diaper account for a big New York agency. Otherwise, Fin’s life is a mess: he broke up with his fiancée a month before their wedding, is infatuated with his office assistant, Phoebe, and is estranged from his entire family. When his workaholic boss drags him into the office over Christmas to craft a Super Bowl commercial for biodegradable diapers (one of the concepts involves attaching Al Gore’s head to a global parade of Earth-friendly babies) and his abusive, long-lost father turns up in the hospital, Fin’s universe is tipped on its ear. The advertising insider lore and commercial shoot set pieces are golden; the family drama is less successful. Although set up to seem high stakes, events outside Fin’s control guide his family crisis away from father-son conflict and toward less compelling internal struggles. As a satire, the novel is willing to bite off an ambitious chunk of popular culture, but as a human drama, it chooses to make safe choices. Even so, much is a comic tour de force; fans of Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper will have a new author to watch for. Agent: David Kuhn. (Jan.)
An adman's midlife crisis
Fin Dolan, advertising agency copywriter and narrator of John Kenney’s engaging first novel, is approaching his 40th birthday while still “waiting for my life to begin.” That Kenney, who brings to this story his own experience of 17 years in the advertising business, is able to transform a man who’s basically drifting through life into such an appealing character is a tribute to his skill. Belying its debut status, Truth in Advertising is a mature novel that veers from pathos to humor and back without a misstep.
After eight years with a New York agency owned by Japan’s largest shipping company, it’s easy to understand why Fin thinks he’s stuck in neutral. He fights to keep his creative juices flowing while crafting ads for a demanding diaper manufacturer, and he’s only recently ended his engagement for reasons even he doesn’t fully understand, leaving him with two first-class airline tickets but nowhere to go. When he’s recruited to produce a Super Bowl commercial for the world’s first biodegradable diaper—a job that will require him to abandon his plan to flee to Mexico alone for the Christmas holiday—he’s tossed into the middle of a nasty existential crisis.
If Kenney had been content to confine his story to Fin’s floundering performance at work and nearly nonexistent love life, this novel would be entertaining enough, if slight. Instead, he layers over the sharply observed, often witty portrait of Fin’s professional and personal troubles an empathetic account of his protagonist’s struggle to come to terms with the legacy of an abusive father.
For Kenney, the business of advertising—a business that exists to sell us products we didn’t even know we needed—serves as a proxy for the world of work that, for most of us, consumes the majority of our waking hours. “We settle into a life,” Fin muses. “Maybe we made this life or maybe it simply happened.” And yet, he concludes, “We look for something deeper than merely a paycheck.” There’s a certain nobility in this story of an Everyman whose stumbles and small triumphs illuminate our own lives.