Gwyneth Paltrow, 1984, and dirty diapers aren't an obvious mix. But in the jaded eye of advertising copywriter Finbar Dolan, it all jumbles together to make up the observed life. Because no matter how profound an experience may be, Dolan views it as a commercial — from his Mamet-mimicking colleagues to their never-completed screenplays — which says as much about the emotional disconnection of the nearly 40-year-old "creative" as it does about his professional skills. And so when Dolan gets his greatest challenge — the Holy Grail of a Super Bowl ad, except on a too-tight deadline — he should be ready for it. Or is he?

That's the setup of Truth in Advertising, a snortingly funny debut by New Yorker humor writer (and long-time copywriter) John Kenney. Narrated by the gimlet-eyed Dolan, a relative veteran in his youth-obsessed field, the novel spans that one impossible campaign, savagely spoofing pop culture, midlife crises, art, sex, and maybe even death along the way. "It starts this way," Dolan explains. "A small office, a cubicle, a place of unopenable windows and bad lighting. People with colds. A cafeteria that smells of warm cheese. An assignment. Let's make a TV commercial!" And he's off.

This zeitgeist-savvy humor cloaks a darker story about Dolan's violently dysfunctional Boston Irish family, which comes to life as he gets the news that his long-absent father is dying. The disparity is, at first, jarring, as the candy-coating wears away to reveal the first hints of abuse and heartache. By the time the spot is filming, however, the two sides of the story have melded, the absurdly finicky demands of the clients setting the deeper issues in high relief. Although Nick Hornby is the obvious reference — humor and heartbreak of ordinary life — this wonderful book is more J. Alfred Prufrock. Except that with the unlikely aid of a Japanese billionaire, our aging hipster might just wake in time.

JOHN KENNEY :: Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St, Boston :: January 29 :: 6 pm :: Free :: 617.536.5400 or 

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