3 novels about home and estrangement

Robert Frost once defined home as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” In this week's fiction roundup, three men estranged from their families find out if he was right.

1. “Truth in Advertising,” by John Kenney

For those of us who watch the Super Bowl primarily for the commercials, Truth in Advertising stars an unwilling ad writer who has just six weeks to make one.

The product Finbar Dolan is peddling isn't Doritos, BMW, Coca-Cola, or any of the usual suspects. Not only does his ad not star a baby Clydesdale, it doesn't even have a sock puppet pushing online pet food.

Fin has to sell diapers – specifically one billed as the world's first biodegradable diaper. (Or possibly, depending if the legal department will let them make the claim.)

“I make the commercials wherein you turn the sound down or run to the toilet,” he says with the self-deprecating charm that fuels John Kenney's debut novel.

His workaholic boss has him cancel Christmas vacation to come up with a brilliant idea. One problem: The reason Fin specializes in diaper ads is because he isn't known for his brilliant ideas. (During the brainstorming session, one suggestion is to superimpose Al Gore's head on a bunch of babies.)

“If there is a hierarchy in advertising products, surely a small plastic bag that holds poo and won't degrade for hundreds of years is well toward the bottom,” Fin says before offering an anthropological tour of the various factions inhabiting an advertising firm.

Nearing 40, Fin is in full-on midlife crisis mode. He has no wife or kids. (“My life is spent in diapers (has to be a better way to say that) and yet I, myself, have never changed one.”) He abruptly canceled his wedding, has a crush on his 28-year-old assistant, and isn't sure he wants to put in another 20 years writing about Snugglies.

Just to make the holiday perfect, his brother calls to tell him his estranged dad is dying in a Cape Cod hospital. (None of Fin's Boston-raised brothers or sisters are interested in making the journey.)

The romantic subplot is pretty pedestrian: As soon as Phoebe starts talking about Billy Collins and how she “loves a funny poet,” you know she's the gal for Fin. The dying abusive father saga relies on familiar tropes, although Kenney does thankfully resist the touching deathbed reunion scene.

The pleasure of reading “Truth in Advertising” is in its comedic send-up of the ad industry's self-importance, as narrated by a good-hearted if skeptical underachiever.

Kenney, a humor writer who is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, also used to work as in advertising. (It's a pity the magazine's legendary fact-checking department couldn't have helped out Touchstone's editors: In a discussion of Mean Joe Greene's famous Coke commercial, Kenney misspells the football Hall of Famer's name.)

His style is breezy and conversational as Fin keeps up a steady patter of sarcasm to keep pain – and anyone else – at bay. Whether Phoebe or his brothers and sisters will manage to sneak through the force field of jokes isn't ever in much doubt, but “Truth in Advertising” is still a pleasure to read. Nick Hornby fans will find themselves in welcome, if familiar, territory.

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