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.

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