Years ago, when my husband and I were travelling in Costa Rica, we found ourselves sitting across from an American family at a thatched roof restaurant high in the cloud forest. As the family rose to go, the father turned to reveal, emblazoned boldly across the back of his felt-and-leather jacket, the logo of a major diaper company (hint: it rhymes with “Campers”). We wouldn’t have been more amazed had he turned out to be wearing a howler monkey-fur codpiece. This, after all, was no Queen Street ironist. The man was a true believer.
Fin Dolan, the copywriter-hero of John Kenney’s witty first novel, isn’t the kind of guy who’d hike the jungles of Central America with a diaper logo on his back, but part of him wishes he were. At 39, Fin is getting long in the tooth at the Manhattan ad agency where he works, one whose main client happens to be a major diaper company called Snugglies.
New York-based Kenney, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s humour section, “Shouts & Murmurs,” has also been a copywriter for 17 years and thus knows of what he speaks. He is particularly brilliant at clashing Fin’s jadedness with the unglamorous products he’s forced to pitch. A scene where Fin tries to cast actors in the roles of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea for a commercial may be sophomoric, but it still had me in tears (Client memo: “While we like Nausea and Vomiting very much, we’re having a problem with Diarrhea.”)
Aware that boredom and cynicism have become his biggest obstacle, Fin convinces himself that a promotion would stave off their insidious creep. A promotion might also distract from his guilt over breaking off his engagement to his attractive but vanilla girlfriend Amy. Opportunity knocks when Fin’s boss asks to see him the day before the agency is to close for the Christmas break. Snugglies is launching a revolutionary new product—the first fully biodegradable, flushable diaper—and Fin has six weeks to conceive a spot for that holy grail of advertising, the Super Bowl.
As Fin struggles to come up with worthy creative, his brother Eddie calls with the news that their estranged father is dying in a Cape Cod hospital. Being the only one of his siblings not to have a family (Fin notes that he spends his day in diapers but has never changed one), Fin reluctantly agrees to go down. Here, Kenney eases up on the sarcasm throttle and allows Fin’s backstory to emerge. His father, a war veteran, abused his brothers then walked out on the family when Fin was barely in his early teens. A few years later, Fin’s mother committed suicide. Fin hasn’t seen his father since her funeral.
When his father dies, Fin’s instinct is to disregard his wish to have his ashes scattered in the Pacific near Pearl Harbor. But two things: a letter delivered by his father’s lawyer and a scolding from Phoebe, an assistant at the agency, convince him to reconsider. Kenney successfully feathers the edge between yucks and sincerity in what follows, not the least of which is Fin’s father’s ashes getting lost by FedEx (who promise the next package he ships will be free). Struggling to do the right thing, Fin finds an unexpected ally in Keiko, the playboy son of the billionaire Japanese shipping mogul who owns the agency. Keiko, it turns out, has father issues too.
An ongoing joke about advertising creatives, made here and on shows like Mad Men, is that they’re all thwarted directors with a screenplay sitting in their drawer. That Phoebe, Fin’s best friend, is also described at the outset as heart-stoppingly beautiful leaves not a shred of doubt as to how the novel will end. It also makes us wonder if Kenney doesn’t aspire to the stereotype he mocks. This safe, romcom predictability is the only real disappointment in an otherwise delightfully caustic piece of satire.