Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Fool Among Fools (John Terracuso)

Traditionally, there are more novels about the advertising industry than there are about most other industries, and the reason is not hard to find: advertising employs copywriters, many of whom are also would-be fiction writers. John Terracuso's A Fool Among Fools is an engaging entry in the micro-genre of advertising fiction, and you could also tag it as a gay novel, a New York City novel, and an Eighties novel, if you're into tagging. But it's really the advertising that's front and center here, and it would be unfortunate if, because the author and his protagonist Michael Gregoretti are gay men, the novel got restricted to a gay male readership. It has plenty else to offer besides sharp insights into gay relationships in the early AIDS era (although those insights are spot on).

I should pause here to get something out of the way: A Fool Among Fools is nothing at all like a certain television series about advertising you may have heard of. It's set in a different time period, it is not about being stylish in any sense, and it is decidedly not an ensemble piece. Since Terracuso chose to write the novel in the first person from Michael's POV, everything and everyone is filtered through his reactions, and the other characters do not have rounded dimensionality. Michael is an old-movie buff, and whether consciously or not, he sees everyone as fulfilling their role, major or supporting, in his story.

Michael's self-absorption could have been a drag, but I found the pages flying by. As in many other good first person novels, we are given enough information to "read past" the narrator. For example, most readers will have decided by the half-way point that one of the reasons that Michael is so unhappy in advertising is that he lacks the right talents for it. Not just writing talent, but the right sort of interpersonal talents as well.

That is not to let the advertising profession off the hook. Michael's feelings about it may be slightly exaggerated, but they do not seem unjust. He may caricature some of the colleagues and clients that he dislikes, but that they are basically mighty unpleasant, one does not doubt.

Wait a second, though! Isn't this a comic novel?

Ostensibly. However, my own anti-corporate biases will undoubtedly shine through when I say that I think that most straightforward narratives with workplace settings are melancholy if not downright depressing. People are not at their best in the workplace; they are usually much closer to their worst. A Fool Among Fools does capture that, and at a very fine level of grain, by going so deeply into the processes involved with specific ad campaigns that you are suffering right along with Michael and the others. Matthew Weiner could never do this on Mad Men, where a dozen pots have to be boiling at once. Television is just a different medium.

The satirical dimension of A Fool Among Fools is nippy rather than outright bitey, and this moderate approach pays off nicely in a "third-act revelation" about the worst person at the agency (and Michael's particular nemesis). As Michael says (and here he speaks for the reader as well), "It was amazing how many suspicions and unconscious observations could collide in my head in that half-second and suddenly all fit together and make perfect sense." It's a great moment, and one that has been perfectly set up in the course of the novel. Well done, Mr. Terracuso.

Michael's social and romantic life is constantly being squeezed by the demands of his professional life, which is very true in New York in any era. When it comes to gay protagonists, Michael seems to be of a type, most of whom, oddly, get named "Michael" by their creators. Let's see, there is Michael "Mouse" Tolliver in Armistead Maupin's great Tales of the City series, and then there is Michael Novotny, played by Hal Sparks on the U.S. version of Queer as Folk. There is an essay to be written on the Importance of Being Michael, apparently.

All these Michaels are "ordinary guys." They are reasonably handsome without being devastating. They are not tall. They are mild-mannered, although capable of cheek. They can be a touch geeky about their interests. They have close female confidantes. They pine for the perfect boyfriend. They are not hyper-sexual. They feel uncomfortable in leather bars and have to be persuaded to visit them. And so on.

There is a truism in big cities that when it comes to the great job, the great apartment, and the great romantic partner, you can have two if you're lucky, but you can never have all three. Michael Gregoretti barely even has one; the living arrangement with his roommate is OK. His job is terrible, and his boyfriend for most of the book is a cad par excellence. I like the way that Terracuso makes the boyfriend HIV-positive and still keeps him assholish; in most gay novels, that diagnosis is an early warning sign of impending sainthood. No such sentimentality here, which is nice.

When you turn the final page, you may realize that Terracuso has allowed his narrator virtually no victories in the course of the novel, only some tentative glimmers at the end; which is surely unusual. Is A Fool Among Fools bitter about corporate employment, the advertising world, gay New York City, the lies of romance, some combination of these, or is it simply bitter about life in general? It is surely bitter about something, but that is the source of the book's tang. It's better off without sugar-coating.

A Fool Among Fools

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