I’d like to open this post with a disclaimer. (Truth in blogging.)
Disclaimer: My copy of Truth in Advertising, by John Kenney, was provided to me by First Reads. (I entered a giveaway on Goodreads.) However, these opinions are entirely my own and I’d like to think that getting it for free had no influence on my opinions’ development.
I didn’t love it. I started it, felt very unpersuaded generally to continue reading, and set it aside for a few weeks. But if getting it for free did influence me in any way, I did feel more obligated to read it than if I’d paid money for it. (Is that weird?) Anyway, the other day I picked it up and started it again.
The book opens with the story of how the main character, Finbar Dolan, once fabricated an entire paper in high school. The teacher loved the paper (didn’t notice it was completely false) and gave him an A. Cut to the next scene, which opens with Finbar on set at a commercial shoot, and the only reason I can think of that we even got the story about the made-up school paper is that Kenney is trying to make it seem like the obvious career choice for anyone who told believable lies in their papers for school is that of advertising. If you, like me, indulged in an inner eye roll at that, well, you’ve come to the right review. The backstory about the fabricated paper was, to me, completely unnecessary and only predisposed me to dislike Finbar.
In these opening scenes, we also learn that Finbar and his family are estranged, about which the author feeds us this cliché: “Some families grow closer. Others are Irish.” This was the first in a long succession of clichés, as shortly thereafter, Finbar walks through an outline of all the major characters he works with (bolded headings and everything), and it’s all the stock stereotypes you’ve come to expect inhabiting a story about advertising: the gay creative director who looks like he stepped out of an Armani ad, the serious female producer who isn’t “nice”, and frankly it’s even boring listing them out for you.
Maybe it was the rapid succession of stereotypes forced down my throat in the first fifty pages, but tactics like these just leave me cold. I know stereotypes exist because so often there’s a degree of truth in them – but it reads like lazy characterization to me. Anyway, it was at this point the first time that I stopped reading. The second time through, it was at this point that I skipped ahead: first to the end, and then back to the middle to start reading again. Because parts of the book were worth reading.
So Finbar works in advertising, and he doesn’t speak to his family. His mother died when he was young, not long after their abusive father left them. The four children were left on their own and despite their early closeness, they no longer speak to each other. There are a number of flashbacks throughout the book, to fill in Finbar’s family history. We soon discover that Finbar’s father is dying in a hospital, alone, and Finbar’s decision to go sit with his father as he’s dying becomes the catalyst for him to finally decide what it is he really wants out of life. It was only after Finbar made a few halting steps outside his emotional paralysis that I was able to connect with this book at all.
It’s entirely possible that this book just came to me at the wrong time — that I’m being too hard on it. I might just be fresh out of patience with the Man-Boy’s Struggle to discover What Matters Most in Life. Thankfully, I don’t think Kenney intends to glorify that struggle. I think instead he’s showing us the humor and pathos inside and around that struggle: that he was ultimately successful (even with me, see aforementioned lack of patience) is a singular triumph.