TRUTH IN ADVERTISING, by John Kenney. Touchstone, 308 pp., $24.99.
'Truth in Advertising," the first novel from New Yorker magazine humor contributor John Kenney, looks a lot like one of those "whiny man" books -- books that, as my editor once put it, tell "stories about white guys who just can't seem to figure out why their lives aren't going better."
The white guy here is Finbar Dolan, a 40-ish Manhattan ad copywriter with daddy issues who suddenly left his fiancee because, you know, he just "wasn't that man." He's about to take a much-needed solo vacation to Mexico when his boss assigns him the herculean task of producing a Super Bowl spot for the "world's first eco-friendly, one-hundred-percent biodegradable diaper."
Thankfully, the "whiny man" stuff falls away when Finbar gets a call a few hours later and learns that his estranged father is dying. As it turns out, those daddy issues are legit. The guy was a nasty, physically abusive alcoholic. Growing up under his roof was so bad that the other Dolan children are staying away, even in this, his final hour. So Finbar, who admits that his siblings had it worse, is suddenly forced to choose whether the old man dies alone.
Peppered with colorful impressions of New York City life, "Truth in Advertising" is a quick-witted, wry send-up of the ad industry and corporate culture. Finbar's typical day, for example, might involve actual work, but it might just as well include playing "air drums to Barry White." During an important brainstorming session, Finbar's colleagues "tweet, update a Facebook page, post a wall comment, browse Zappos. "
The author also gleefully skewers creative types who "are always working on a novel" and use phrases like "selling my soul" when they describe their jobs. "Oil companies who cut safety and environmental corners sell their soul," Finbar says. "But ad guys? People who make cereal commercials? Client changes that ruin your art? Grow up."
But amid the humor are a few strikingly dark moments. "It's not the blatant, drunken screamer who does the real damage. Give me the father who beats you, who's always angry, any day of the week," Finbar says. "It's the mood shifter who's the real danger."
In the end, "Truth in Advertising" delivers a clear-eyed, sympathetic story about family ties and the possibility of healing. It reminds us that no one can escape the "simple truth that however far you drift from your family, however much pain they've caused you, however hard you try to run, at some point, perhaps without knowing it, you end up running back. Even if it's too late."