In this debut novel John Kenney’s very title “Truth in Advertising” presents us with a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. Kenney had worked for 17 years as a copywriter for a big New York ad agency and he follows the first rule for a debut novelist in writing about what he knows. His hunt for the nonexistent truth in advertising is carried on in the first-person voice of his narrator Finbar Dolan, who works as a copywriter in a large, extremely prosperous Madison Avenue ad agency. Although Dolan is nowhere near the top of this very hierarchical institution, he’s doing well enough to wonder at his good fortune. He doesn’t quite understand how he got to be where he is, at once overworked and actually more than a little bored.
Finbar has a team in the section called the “creatives” (as opposed to, say, accounting,) consisting of Ian, his art director, (gay, sweet-tempered, specializing in sardonic remarks) and Pam, his producer (fast-talking, vodka-drinking, chain-smoking, specializing in suffering no fools gladly). His team’s job is to produce 30-second TV spots, commercials for diapers as well as a few other items: paper towels, toothpaste, etc. but nothing big and sexy like Apple or Pepsi. Diapers are his main account and in the seven years this particular team has been together, they’ve produced 23 commercials.
The opening chapter finds Fin’s team on the set of a diaper shoot in Queens. A very accommodating and pleasant Gwyneth Paltrow stands waiting around, while a finicky director, small in stature, enormous in ego and undeserved reputation, throws one tantrum after another. Fin implies that such is a normal day at work: spent mainly wastefully burning scads of a client’s money. In the end everyone on the shoot agrees that “it went well,” while they all know that actually it didn’t. The agency makes an easy target for satire, with much of the stuff at the front end of the novel translatable directly to television sitcom land: the grunts in the office understanding how things work while the execs above them, let alone the clients, remain pretty much clueless. It’s always fun to read sharply written stuff about wasteful practices.
The novel’s structure contrasts the easy lies of advertising with the hard struggled-for truths of friendship, family loyalty and finally something as elusive and precious as large-hearted love. Only after gaining this last can one call oneself and others a good person. Irish Catholic by heritage, the son of a cop, the youngest by a number of years with two brothers and a sister, Fin describes how each member manages to exit from a family where seemingly there’s no love and therefore there’s none lost. It starts with Eddie Sr. who walks out when Fin is 12.
The others follow as soon as they can. Eddie Jr. for instance, escapes to a law practice and to having nothing to do with his father for 20 years. Fin escapes to New York, alone and eager to absorb what he discovers as every-day beauty in the city. Somewhere through the middle of the novel matters deepen, and even the satire becomes more serious, as Fin starts to explore why as a person “who’s supposed to be immune to false narratives, creates false narratives for a living.”
As a product of Boston’s working-class, Fin is particularly alert and sensitive to issues of status and social class, in good part because he feels he possesses neither of these. He also thinks that he’s not all that smart. About this last he’s quite wrong. In the dialect of his hometown he could be called “wicked smart” (pronounced smaaht). Boston working class pronunciation is something he tries to hide and mostly he’s pretty good at that as well. As he fills in the details of his background, he reveals ever so slowly and quite painfully exactly why he’s so emotionally remote. For me at least this made for gripping reading. I would guess some reviews might disagree, seizing on what superficially seem like stereotypes. My feeling is that it depends on how closely one reads for the details.
In a passage of extraordinary delicacy and tact at the end of the book, Kenny describes a brotherly reconciliation. As they stand awkwardly on a street corner, Eddie having hailed a cab for departure, Fin says, “You’re a good man, Eddie Dolan. Don’t forget that.” The truth Fin Dolan discovers is how sorry his brother feels about their 20-year estrangement from one another and how he finds it within himself also to say, “I’m sorry” and then, “You’re a good man …” Both brothers are choking back sobs. The moment before the cab pulls away, Eddie “turned and gave me a little head nod, a half smile, the smallest wave. And I waved too” In the final line of “Truth in Advertising” Fin notes: “I’d put it in a commercial, but no one would believe it.” A reader with a heart of stone will not be moved by this. I advise all others to reach for the Kleenex.
When real human connections are made, they are always rare and tentative at first, terribly moving when they deepen. It’s very hard for a writer to bring this off without lapsing into sentimental goo. In other words, it’s hard for a writer to avoid the mendacious language of good feelings – the problem solved in a 30-second TV spot.
There’s more craft than art until the middle of this novel. Then gradually it deepens and becomes something else. It approaches not truth in advertising, but some truths.
Truth in Advertising
By John Kenney
306 pages. $24.99.
Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston, Texas.