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If God Allows by Robert P. Cohen

January 27, 2019

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I was fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of this audacious modern-day Mad Men. It’s a novel of an American advertising creative director who takes a top position at an agency in Jarkarta, Indonesia. But it’s unlikely that even Don Draper could keep up with Paul, our protagonist.

Early in the novel, Paul reveals that he’s in Jakarta for the story. After finding international success with his “Get Juiced” ad campaign, he could have had his pick of any of the big global agencies. But he wants something more. Paul wants to write the Great American Novel—or something like it—and so he needs a place where he can live a story worthy of a novel. It’s an advertising cliché that every copywriter has an unfinished novel in their drawer, but in the context of a novel, it does a strange thing—it gives Paul a kind of meta-awareness of his own plot. It both gives him motivation and calls into question his motivations. How do you live when your motivation is to be a good story? And is that any different than just living?

Paul definitely makes a good go at living a novel-worthy life. The book is filled with sex, drugs, danger, crime, love, comedy and general insanity. It’s sometimes a little fratty, sometimes a little gonzo, sometimes over-the-top. When Paul is trying to describe what he imagines his novel to be to one of his clients, he says it’s “Sort of a pseudo-biopic romantic comedy with a heavy dose of international intrigue.”

That about nails it, but doesn’t give credit to some of the weightier themes, which Cohen touches on without being heavy-handed. He shifts between general hilarity and poignant contemplations about poverty, religion, and purpose in life. He captures the feeling of dislocation one experiences in a completely foreign country and the difficulty of running the gauntlet of cultural faux pas.

One of my favorite parts is the man Paul sees daily from his office window—a poor man in a dirt lot behind the building. Paul contemplates this man, how their two existences are so close to each other in space but couldn’t be more different. He is a kind of check on Paul’s perspective, a constant reminder of the “real world.”

The novel is peppered with funny moments and dry one-liners, like when he observes that his glass of 23-year Pappy Van Winkle tastes like “the last drink of a disgraced dictator, right before his public execution.” It moves along at a good clip and is full of enough twists to keep the reader turning pages and on their proverbial toes.

A novel about a man trying to live a novel-worthy life is, as we’d say in the advertising business, a solid concept. I’d contend that the execution is just as strong.

 

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