Novel set in ad world offers laughs, lessons

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 11, 2013 15:15 hrs

<>"Truth in Advertising" (Touchstone), by John Kenney

A hilarious op-ed column on politics appeared in The New York Times as the 2012 presidential election was winding down — in other words, just when we desperately needed comic relief. The off-the-wall columnist was identified as John Kenney, "author of the forthcoming novel, 'Truth in Advertising.'" Better keep an eye out for that book, I figured.

As expected, this debut novel reads at times like a laugh-out-loud standup routine. What sustains it, though, is much more substantial: an engaging, believable plot, a fascinating if jaundiced view inside the contemporary world of New York advertising, and most of all, a lead character you're glad you get to know, even if doing so becomes infuriating at times.

Kenney, who spent many years as an ad copywriter, introduces us to Finbar Dolan, a longtime toiler in those same vineyards. Encouraged to "make his mark" with promotions for assorted banal products — including the creation of a Super Bowl ad for a "revolutionary" brand of disposable diapers, which drives a central part of the plot — Dolan expresses ambivalence. On the one hand, he wants a promotion and sometimes even catches a whiff of the creative rush that drew him to advertising in the first place, but basically he's a 39-year-old who knows too much, a realist even in the midst of his natural escapism.

"How do you see the world?" Dolan muses at one point. "Is there music underscoring scenes of your life? Do you slow things down for intensity and drama? Speed them up for comedy? Do you rewrite dialogue, if, say, you've had a fight with your boss or your wife or some jackass who cut the line at Dunkin' Donuts? In the rewrites are you far wittier, far more bold? I do and I am. It makes life more interesting for me, gives me a wonderful sense of false empowerment. And yet I know I miss the far more interesting narratives, the narratives I will never know, of strangers ..."

Likable, clever, complex Fin Dolan — a guy anybody would love to have in the office — is also, we gradually learn, dragging around a major demon: a shattering story of his family life growing up in Boston that he has been trying to leave behind for decades. It forces its way to the surface when he learns that his estranged father is dying and realizes that only he, among the man's children, each damaged in a different way, feels anything like obligation to get involved.

It's a measure of Kenney's writing talent that the regular gusts of delicious, smart-alecky ad agency banter among Dolan and his witty comrades and the painful-to-read scenes depicting the toxic relations among siblings feel equally real in this novel.

Another measure is the sophistication of Kenney's commentary, through Dolan, on modern life.

"I read somewhere," Dolan soliloquizes at one point, "that on average each of us is exposed to something like 5,000 advertising messages a day. If you sleep for eight hours that's something like 312 messages — commercials, print ads, web banners, T-shirt logos, coffee cup sleeves, sneaker swooshes — an hour. ... Logos everywhere. What do they mean? Is anyone listening? While you're thinking about that, have a Coke and a smile."

Oh, and there's a love story tucked into this novel, too. You like Phoebe as much as you like Fin, you root for them, and it drives you nuts when — no, that would be telling too much. Suffice it to say that the progress of their relationship, like the other plotlines, encounters abrupt, unforeseen turns — but ones you can believe as this smart, cinematic story carries you along.