The Short Version: Fin Dolan works in advertising. He isn’t particularly great at his job, although he isn’t bad at it either. One thing is for sure: he hates it. Or at least he thinks he does, he’s not sure. And when his deadbeat father ends up in the hospital at the same time as a major account bumps up its deadline, Fin spends his holidays figuring out how to be a son, a brother, someone worth loving – and most of all, a human being.
The Review: In a witty and wonderful ploy, there’s a back cover pull-quote from the USA Today review of this book. “It’s the stuff of Jonathan Tropper novels and Judd Apatow films and every Zooey Deschanel fantasy,” it says – but there’s a little asterisk that denotes that the review was, in fact, a scathing pan! HA! And I can see how, under certain circumstances, those three individuals would be a negative comparison – I’ve not been able to stomach New Girl and Apatow is often overrated – but also, aren’t they all providing something that we so often need? Those three creators – and I’m happy to add John Kenney to their midst – provide the most thankless of services: telling us stories of simple, funny, messy humanity in which our protagonists look and sound pretty much just like us only maybe a bit better-written and they go through the quirky, stupid, heartwarming things that all of us go through, except their ‘adventures’ are perhaps also a bit better-written.
And sometimes you just… sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
The advertising world is, in the post-Mad Men world, super-glamorized. So it’s nice to read one that tells of the world as being just as messy and soul-sucking as plenty of other jobs. Fin’s weary near-annoyance at the perks of the job might come off to some as ridiculous (“how could you be tired of that life?!” I can hear people shouting) but it’s funny to see just how a person can get used to anything – we so often see them getting used to struggle and strife but what about when you get used to the good stuff? The same ennui can appear – you’re just less prepared for it.
There’s a family story here, too – although the family bits have a bit less of the weight of the story despite Kenney’s seeming intentions otherwise. The backstory of the Dolans, Boston Irish Catholics (and they all, except Fin, feel spot-on like Boston Irish Catholics) on the blue-collar side, and how the four siblings intersect in the present is predictable but no less entertaining for it. It’s Fin’s story though and so the book lives or dies with him. Luckily, he’s charming and funny and just a little bit haggard. You can’t see it all the time, it’s hidden well – but Kenney does a really terrific job at slowing revealing the fraying edges of Fin’s psyche that peek out from under his well-kept exterior. The tiredness is sometimes stated explicitly but far more often it is implied, a masterful touch for a first time novelist.
The humor of the novel is warm, like good holiday cider – which makes sense, as Kenney makes regular appearances in the “Shouts and Murmurs” column of The New Yorker. You’re going to find lines that make you laugh out loud and, even though you know it’s coming, ones that’ll make you go “awww” or like your heart is going to explode. But in the good way. It’s just that sort of novel.
But just when you think you understand that this is a novel of common pleasures and average concepts, Kenney manages to rise a step above. There’s a passage several pages long about a third of the way through the book where Kenney describes the experience of New York. “What a thing it is to live in New York City,” it begins – and three pages later, it ends with “You keep waiting for something to happen. And that is your mistake.” It is a beautiful, pitch-perfect passage, the kind of thing that’s too difficult to quote because you want to quote the whole thing. How often do you find that kind of passage in a book anymore? Where you want to quote several pages without cutting a word? And while there are plenty of one-liners and witty banter sections worth quoting (they are in advertising, after all), it was that section that really sold me on my enjoyment of the book. It’s an uncommon talent who can write so well – but an even more uncommon one to deploy such writing so selflessly as in the pursuit of just telling a simple, wonderful, ordinary story of a man trying to figure out who he really is (and maybe falling in love at the same time).
Rating: 5 out of 5. Call it early holiday spirit, maybe – but this book warmed me up inside. It’s been a bit of a tumultuous past month or so, which I think just comes with the territory of being young and trying to figure things out, but this book is the reminder that, hey, things are messy sometimes but they can also be funny and sloppy and heartfelt and you’ll be alright. Sometimes that’s the kind of novel you need. Ain’t nothing wrong with it – even if the real world might have fewer clean happy endings. But even still, there’s a smile on my face to think of Phoebe and Fin at the end of this story and so all is right for at least this short moment.