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Truth in Advertising: A Novel Hardcover – January 22, 2013

4.1 out of 5 stars 122 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2013: Don't let the fast-paced advertising executive banter about designer jeans, bottomless expense accounts, and Gwyneth Paltrow fool you: Truth in Advertising is not a glossy pop confessional. Under a wafer-thin candy coating, John Kenney reveals a deep, acerbic skepticism about corporate life, family, and love. His main character, Finbar Dolan, is a lonely man who wants his job to mean something but doesn't think it does. He wants real human connections but is estranged from his own family. He wants the truth but can't stop lying to himself. Part Nick Hornby and part Joseph Heller, this debut is both a satire of consumerism and a painful exploration of what it means to forgive. A spoonful of sugar just helps the medicine go down. --Benjamin Moebius

Author One-on-One: Comedian Andy Borowitz and John Kenney, author of Truth in Advertising

John Kenney
Andy Borowitz

Andy Borowitz is a New York Times bestselling author and comedian who created the satirical column The Borowitz Report, which was acquired by The New Yorker in 2012 and has millions of readers around the world. He is the first-ever winner of the National Press Club's humor award, a two-time finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a two-time host of the National Book Awards. He has been called a "Swiftian satirist" (The Wall Street Journal), "America's satire king" (The Daily Beast), "the funniest human on Twitter" (The New York Times) and "one of the funniest people in America" (CBS News Sunday Morning). His Kindle Single, ”An Unexpected Twist,” was a number one bestseller and Amazon's Best Kindle Single of 2012.

Andy: You spent many years working in advertising. What made you decide to set your first novel in that world? Is the real world of advertising both as funny—and sad—as your fictional version?

John Kenney: It’s a cliché but they say write about what you know. So for me it was write about advertising or the inside world of being a busboy. Advertising, certainly in the post-Mad Men era, seems to have an allure. People find it exciting and fast-paced. It certainly can be. But day to day it’s far more boring, certainly for creative people, whose days are spent sitting in an office trying to think of ideas, most of which aren’t that great (in my experience, anyway). I don’t think it’s a sad business at all but it can test one’s resolve. There are times when it’s easy to step outside of the project at hand and say, “Do we really need to be this serious about the new sodium-free ketchup spot?” That said, I liked it better than being a busboy.

Andy: What’s the biggest misconception about advertising, and why does that interest you as a novelist?

John: I think it’s how cool/sexy/exciting advertising is supposed to be. It certainly can be if you’re working on a big account like Nike or Apple or Coke. But most creatives—the copywriters and art directors who think up the ideas—work on far smaller accounts, with far smaller budgets. These people are just as committed and just as smart, and, frankly, doing a really great ad for Oreos is damned hard. Or diapers, as is the case for Fin, the main character in the book. He’s not a superstar. But successful characters don’t really interest me I like strugglers. I like confused people, damaged people. Strivers. Of course, that has nothing to do with my own experience as a decidedly non-superstar copywriter…

Andy: That brings me to the question most novelists hate to be asked: Who is the narrator Fin, and are there parts of you in his character?

John: Fin is like a lot of guys I knew in advertising. Smart, charming, funny. Guys you wanted to hang around with, have a beer with. He’s a lot smarter than I am and certainly more lost than I ever was, though God knows I had my confused days as a single guy in New York. To me the similarity—if there is one—isn’t merely the advertising connection, it’s the loss. My mother died when I was young. That was a defining event for me. And it’s only much later in my life that I realized how defining, how it colored everything for me. Fin shares that. But I think a lot of us carry around hidden traumas, those lasting pains. My editor sent me a quote from a letter that Ted Hughes wrote to his son. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. That’s Fin.

Andy: In the book, you write that we are the stories we tell ourselves. What is it that pushes Fin to finally tell himself the truth?

John: I think ultimately it’s his father’s death. Fin holds onto this anger and pain for so long, and I think it surprises him how sad his father’s death makes him, what a terrible waste it all was. It’s so hard to see your parents as people. We expect so much from them. I think he’s finally able to see his father for a flawed and traumatized man, to forgive him, to grieve for the life they never had together. He sees where not dealing with trauma and pain leads. And he doesn’t want that. I think he sees his own mortality. And it terrifies him. It makes him want to live.

Andy: Why do we meet Fin at this particular moment in his life?

John: Because he’s a mess. A job he doesn’t love. A recently canceled wedding. His estranged family and dying father. His cluelessness over Phoebe, his love interest. I think there comes a point where you realize the future isn’t limitless. For Fin it’s waking up on the eve of his fortieth birthday, being surprised by this, by the path life has taken. I think he sees that there’s a window that’s fast closing and that unless he acts differently, he’s going to be lost. He’s tried lying because the pain of the truth–of what he saw and experienced, of caring for someone who might leave–is simply too much for him. I think he finally sees that life is about courage. And the courage is to be honest with himself.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Finbar Dolan, a copywriter churning out mediocre commercials for a Madison Avenue ad agency, views himself as if through a long camera lens, using denial and humor to avoid a painful past and feelings of failure. Christmas, for him, will be spent alone in Mexico—at least that’s the half-baked plan. Until his boss assigns Fin the impossible task of writing, prepping, producing, editing, and mixing a Super Bowl ad—over the holidays—for the world’s first eco-friendly diaper. Then his estranged brother tracks him down. Their abusive father is in the hospital, and it’s up to Fin to visit the dying man because no one else will. Over the course of a wacky commercial shoot, Fin learns about forgiving, loving, reconnecting with family, and finally telling the truth—to himself and others. Here is a close-up view of the advertising world, the artistic misfits who people it, and one man’s grasp at happiness. Written by a former copywriter and contributor to the New Yorker, Kenney’s debut novel is a masterful blend of wit and seriousness, stunning in its honesty. A novel sure to appeal to fans of Nick Hornby. --Diane Holcomb

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone (January 22, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451675542
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451675542
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (122 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #945,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a lot of things. It is funny; it is sad. It is dark and it is sweet. It reflects the reality of growing older and redefining priorities as well as the unreality of the world of advertising. But the bottom line is that this is an entertaining read about one man's journey to face his past, present, and future. This sounds like a tall order, but the author handles it with humor and grace.

The story is centered around Finbar Dolan, who works for an advertising agency in NYC. Fin has great trouble forming lasting connections with people, and the tragic reason for this is unraveled as the book unwinds. He is also getting a bit jaded about the world and especially his job, which he doesn't find to be particularly meaningful. The story launches with a skewering of advertising in general and its tendency toward ridiculousness; the snark is amusing. The tale turns darker as we begin to learn about why Fin struggles so much with relationships, especially with family members, but the humor is still woven throughout.

I won't give away the ending of this book, but I will say that I was very gratified by the truth of it. The easy way out was not taken by Fin or by the author. I would recommend this to all readers, but especially folks in their thirties and forties who may be struggling with what their contribution to the world is and could be. It really resonated with me.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the review excerpts on the Amazon page, there was a quote from People saying: "a lively novel with movie deal written all over it." And therein lies the problem. The characters bordered on "movie actor" archetypes and, funny and acerbic as the author could be, the book was glib, formulaic, and predictable, with an ending that devolved into a shlocky, sentimental rom-com bubble bath. It felt as though the author wrote this with a specific cast in mind (Channing Tatum as the lead maybe? Gwen and Oprah making guest appearances?). Yet, I am giving it 3 stars because I have to admit, it drew me in and engaged me enough to finish it, and it had moments of true hilarity and tenderness. As a lifer in advertising, I thought his send up of the field was, if a little overblown at times, pretty darned accurate.
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Format: Hardcover
Finbar Dolan is Holden Caulfield 2013, except he is pushing middle age and Irish Catholic. Fin works as a copywriter at a large New York advertising agency, where he has managed to survive while creating pedestrian copy for pedestrian products. He is our narrator.

Just before Christmas Fin is summoned to the executive suite for what could be his big break, the promotion he has long desired but never worked hard enough to get. What he is given is a task. A client has a revolutionary product which must be launched during the Superbowl. Fin is to lead the effort, and create an iconic commercial for the product-a biodegradable non-toxic diaper.

Fin assembles a team of those whose intrinsic value to the agency is such that each is able to be assigned massive amounts of work over the Christmas holidays. They come up with a number of awful ideas, one involving thousands of babies around the world who are born looking like Al Gore. The worst idea of all, a remake of the iconic 1984 Apple Macintosh introduction, involves hurling a messy diaper at the video screen rather than a hammer. Naturally the client loves that idea best and it gets the green light.

As Fin is pushing forward on this campaign, his father, from whom he and his siblings have long been estranged chooses this moment to crawl onto his deathbed.

This is a novel whose big themes are about guilt and forgiveness, love and like, fathers and sons, ambition and sloth. It is told by an often clueless narrator who manages to deliver hilarious ad agency humor on nearly every page, i.e. June Cleaver delivering the first dirty joke ever told on television ("Ward, you were kind of hard on the Beaver last night")

This first novel works at every level. It may itself become a classic like the 1984 Superbowl diaper commercial aspired to be.
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Format: Hardcover
*I was sent an advance reader copy from the publisher*

What attracted me to this debut novel is the suggested similarity to Jonathan Tropper's novels. Having finished this book, I can honestly say that fans of Tropper will love this new volume from John Kenney. Much like Tropper, Kenney has a way of dissecting his characters and letting the reader enter their minds and really gain an understanding of them. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew Fin Dolan inside and out.

There is a little bit of Fin Dolan in all of us. Do we truly know what makes us happy? Can we achieve happiness? Fin is dealing with a lot of issues, but who isn't? Fin's father was abusive and indirectly/directly (depending on where you side) responsible for Fin's mother's death. That has scarred the four Dolan children for life, making it unlikely they will ever be the type of family to stay in touch or show emotion to anyone. Thus, Fin has difficulty showing his emotions to the woman he loves.

I found Fin to be especially likeable because of how easy it is to relate to him. His coworkers Pam and Ian are funny and refreshingly sarcastic which helps Fin keep his sanity while he tries to come up with the perfect diapers commercial on a tight budget. When Fin learns that his father has fallen ill, he must decide if he will take the time to go visit him, knowing his siblings won't. His mental journey while he deals with his father's illness answers many questions for readers, like why he is so scarred and why his emotions are kept under lock and key for the most part. The present is interspersed with momentary flashbacks so that readers slowly get a complete picture of Fin.

There are a few surprises throughout this book that keep the reader interested.
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