Book Review: Truth in Advertising, by John Kenney

Truth in Advertising“In reality I was playing a part, doing what I imagined I was supposed to do.”

Finbar Dolan is having a breakdown. He’s had a mildly successful career at an advertising agency in New York (read: he’s successfully been rewarded for doing the minimal amount of work). His engagement went bust, leaving him with two tickets to anywhere in the world that are about to expire if he doesn’t use them. His estranged, abusive, father is dying. And a diaper client is forcing him to come up with (and execute) an exceptionally expensive Super Bowl commercial to launch a product that may or may not be bad for the environment, even though it’s supposed to be a revolutionary development in “green diaper technology.”

Bookstores might as well have a section devoted to novels about white males approaching middle aged who perpetually screw up their lives until they learn an important life lesson*, and to be honest with you Truth in
Advertising isn’t really any different. If that genre gets on your nerves, this is not the book for you. Plain and simple. If you’re willing to go that route, however, you could do much worse than this novel. John Kenney has a caustic sense of humor that I really enjoyed (this book was presented to me as ‘perfect for fans of Then We Came to the End,’ and the humor, at least, hits this mark).

Kenney also has a great deal of insight into the world of advertising, where presenting an image is, literally, the point. Dolan’s disillusionment with the process goes beyond the realm of Madison Avenue, however; the problems he has with his job (superficiality, dishonesty, lack of connection) could all be applied to the modern world at large, making Truth in Advertising a relatable story (if you happen to be in tune with the problems of a white middle-aged upper-middle-class man with a messed up family and a tendency to screw things up, that is).

But where Truth in Advertising really shined for me was its depiction of the complex relationships that come out of a messed up family. How you can push away people you love because they remind you of deep hurts from long ago. How anger, resentment, and sadness never really leave you unless you meet them head-on. Most importantly, how hard it is to say goodbye to the parent who inflicted all of these things on you. What is the appropriate response when someone you don’t want to be around but is inextricably part of your life, gets ready to leave you forever? It’s deep stuff, and Kenney navigates the minefield admirably.

In the end, this novel stands out as a winner in its genre. How much you like it depends on your acceptance of that genre, but it’s a darkly funny, moving novel that’s worth a look in this reader’s opinion. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Jonathan Tropper and the aforementioned Then We Came to the End.

Grade: B

* Witness A Spot of Bother, White Noise, The Lonely Polygamist, anything by Jonathan Franzen, etc. …

PS As per my mission statement, you may be interested to know this book was given to me by Simon & Schuster in exchange for this review.

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