The Washington Post

‘Truth in Advertising,’ by John Kenney


By John Kenney

Touchstone. 308 pp. $24.99

“Truth in Advertising,” the first novel from New Yorker humor contributor John Kenney, looks a lot like one of those “whiny man” books — books that, as the fiction editor for this newspaper 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, vaguely inspired Manhattan ad agency 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 for Christmas 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.”

‘Truth in Advertising’ by John Kenney (Touchstone)

Well, boo-flipping-hoo.

Thankfully, the “whiny man” stuff falls away when Finbar gets a call a few hours later and learns that his estranged father is dying in a hospital on Cape Cod. 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 or not the old man dies alone.

Peppered with colorful impressions of New York City life, “Truth in Advertising” is a quick-witted, wry sendup of the advertising 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. I stare out the window and imagine the reaction from the driver of the boat when someone first suggested waterskiing.”

The author also gleefully skewers pompous, self-pitying 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 novel’s droll humor, Kenney also produces 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 complex 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.”

Wilwol is a freelance writer in Washington.


By John Kenney

Touchstone. 308 pp. $24.99

Show Comments
Most Read
Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.