Finbar (Fin) Dolan lies. An advertising copywriter at Lauderbeck, Klein & Vanderhosen in Manhattan, he pretty much lies for a living. He lies to his friends. He lies to his family. Most of all, he lies to himself. The narrator and hero “Truth in Advertising,” New Yorker "Shouts and Murmurs" writer John Kenney’s honest, heartfelt, and hilarious first novel, Fin is, frankly, a mess as he closes in on forty. And he knows it.
I wasn’t interested in unearthing the truth so much as creating a truth I wanted to believe, that I knew others would believe. Because it seemed true. . . . Maybe it’s not entirely surprising that I ended up in advertising.
Fin has good reason to lie. Like so many people, he wants to reshape the world that has battered, damaged, and overwhelmed -- and underwhelmed -- him.
How do you see the world? 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 these rewrites are you wittier, more bold? I do and I am. It makes life more interesting for me, gives me a wonderful sense of false empowerment.
He assesses his ad-man skills:
It’s the stuff you see and think, Blessed mother of God, what idiot did that? That idiot would be me. I make the commercials wherein you turn the sound down or run to the toilet.
He knows it’s only advertising -- pretty much a career impediment on Madison Avenue:
Somewhere, not far from these offices, surgeons are saving lives, social workers are helping the poor, the clergy are ministering to the forgotten, scientists are on the edge of breakthroughs that will improve human experience, artists are writing, plays, novels, painting masterpieces. I want to know if Miss Deaf Black America looks deaf, and I have a cock problem. Truth be told, this is not an unusual day at Lauderbeck, Klein & Vanderhosen.
Fin has recently called off his wedding, because he realized he “was playing a part, doing what I imagined I was supposed to do. The words sounded right. That’s why I ask her. . . . I was imagining a scene, like in a commercial.” His advertising agency colleagues – “misfit toys” – are the closest thing he has to friends and family.
It’s nearly Christmas, but Fin and his creative team have been ordered to cancel their plans and devote themselves to an emergency Super Bowl commercial for . . . diapers. Things go downhill for Fin from there. His abusive father, who he hasn’t seen since he walked out on his family 25 years ago, is dying in a Cape Cod hospital. Fin is reluctantly compelled – since his equally estranged siblings refuse -- to do the right thing and visit his father.
His father’s death and his posthumous request that Fin scatter his ashes in Pearl Harbor, where he had spent much of World War II on a submarine, ultimately force Fin to confront the sad and complicated truth about his parents’ marriage and his mother’s death -- a truth he has buried for decades.
Fin’s life is further complicated by his slow-dawning realization that he has fallen in love with his co-worker Phoebe. For once, he tells the truth to his creative partner Ian:
I say, “I think I’m in love with her.”
Ian says, “I know. Everyone knows.”
“Why didn’t I know?”
“You really want to hear this?”
“Because you lie to yourself. Because you keep everyone and everything at arm’s length. . .”
Truth be told, this is a terrifically touching, yet funny, coming of age story about a lovable but essentially clueless, self-deluding, emotionally damaged man of 39. Kenney – himself a copywriter – pens descriptions of how commercials get put together that are pure comic genius. He's made Fin the perfect tour guide for the world of modern day "mad men." But in the end, Fin speaks for everyone who wants more from life. And who doesn't want his or her life to arc towards a happy ending? How can Fin find his own happiness? Simple: with truth in advertising.
“Truth in Advertising” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.