What happens when a humor writer pens a novel intended to be both comedic and dramatic? In the case of John Kenney, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, the comedy sparkles while the drama proves formulaic and predictable. It is as though the author, already gravid with mordant one-liners, snappy banter, and hilarious workplace scenarios, decides he also wants to birth an emotionally riveting tale, a task for which he is unprepared.
An indistinct yet no less burdensome cloud of malaise has settled on the not-very-broad shoulders of Finbar Dolan, narrator of “Truth in Advertising.” For Fin, born and bred in Boston, the sheen of New York has dulled considerably since his arrival eight years ago. He also feels unfulfilled professionally. A copywriter at a major Manhattan ad agency, Fin laments, “I make the commercials wherein you turn the sound down or run to the toilet.”
The advertising industry presents an inviting (though not altogether novel) target for ridicule, and Kenney (himself a native Bostonian with experience working for a New York ad agency) has a field day with the outlandish claims and straight-faced hyperbole of today’s commercials and their sponsors. Listening to a representative of his agency’s latest client, a diaper manufacturer, rhapsodize about their product, a resigned but ever-acerbic Fin observes, “You wait for the punch line but it never comes.”
Fin strikes a perfectly calibrated dual note of self-deprecating wit and mild neurosis when musing on his disarrayed personal life. Fast approaching 40, Fin remains unmarried and childless. As he puts it, “My day is spent in diapers (has to be a better way to say that) and yet I, myself, have never changed one.” He seems unable to translate his deep affection for Phoebe, a beautiful and intelligent co-worker who probably loves him, into action. A back-story segment includes Fin’s former fiancée summing up his problem thus: “Fin, we all have an emotional toolbox. . . . You have a little one, like a child might have. And inside there’s almost nothing. Maybe just like a ball-peen hammer and a broken measuring tape. But it’s not your fault, sweetie.”
When Fin receives word that his long estranged father is comatose and dying in a Cape Cod hospital, Kenney embarks on the vital process of examining the reasons for his protagonist’s emotionally stunted condition. From the start, the author displays a lack of imagination, treading a common and well-traveled path. We learn that the elder Dolan was abusive and abandoned the family when Fin was 12. A couple of years later, Fin’s loving mother committed suicide. Even the reason for the father’s violent rage proves unoriginal: His harrowing experiences in World War II forever scarred him.
Will Fin, who spends the end-of-year holiday season shuttling between New York, Cape Cod, and a diapers video-commercial shoot in Los Angeles, finally forgive his father, reconnect with his siblings, and admit his feelings for Phoebe?
Given the space and detail afforded Fin’s familial saga, Kenney’s effort to give his story heart and heft appears far from perfunctory. It is all the more regrettable, then, that he should rely on hackneyed dramatic tropes for Fin’s inner demons. The author proves competent in handling such undistinguished fare, taking care to lace it with humor. Still, his exertions change nothing. The most memorable feature of “Truth in Advertising” remains Kenney’s skillful skewering of the ad industry as well as the life and middling career of a self-loathing, wisecracking underachiever entangled in its surreal global web.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.