Saturday, June 19, 2010

Washington Post Book World: "HOLY WATER walks perfect line between satire and compassion."

James P. Othmer's comic novel "Holy Water,"

By Elinor Lipman
Sunday, June 20, 2010

By James P. Othmer
292 pp. $26.95

The hero of James P. Othmer's second novel, "Holy Water," is -- luckily for us -- living a middle-management life that has added up only to "the conscientious fulfillment of limited expectations." At 32, Henry Tuhoe has a résumé that traces his lateral moves and promotions from Oral Care to Non-headache-related Pain Relief to Laxatives to Silicon-based Sprays and Coatings and finally to vice president of the Underarm Division.

With the closing of "Armpits" -- one of the few places where the author's cleverness calls attention to itself -- corporate "rightsizing" coincides with the break-up of Henry's unhappy marriage to the unreasonable Rachel, who has forced him into a vasectomy. Or has she? This medical and marital mystery is where Henry first wins our sympathy and recruits us for his adventures. Not that he has a choice, but will his transfer be, as his boss characterizes it, "a chance to start over, an opportunity to lose his inherent wussiness"?

As with the author's acclaimed first novel, "The Futurist," "Holy Water" manages to be at the same time cynical and soul-searching, a difficult juggling act better served in some chapters than others. Henry must decide: Lose his job or be corporately exiled to the fictional third world Kingdom of Galado on the India-China border? There he will open a call center for Happy Mountain Springs bottled water, a sainted brand. Henry doesn't find out until he arrives that the citizens of the "unhinged monarchy" of Galado have no drinking water, that plastic bottles are outlawed, and that all the country's streams are toxic. But his corporate ennui turns into a personal humanitarian mission -- Clean water for all! -- fueled by love and eyes finally opened to the world outside himself. Alas, danger threatens and encroaches. "You have to know all the wrong people to get anything done in this country," he quickly learns.

His new home has a prince who is crazy to just the right megalomaniacal and comic degree. As a graduate of Northeastern, he speaks excellent English. Wearing Lycra workout tights while his iPod plays "High School Musical," he tells Henry, "I have decided to bypass governments and political diplomacy in favor of corporate diplomacy." As illiteracy, starvation and illness flourish, the prince dreams of office towers, banks, hotels, brand-name luxury boutiques and a 28-theater cineplex. His citizens, he asserts, despite demonstrations and uprisings to the contrary, do not want a democracy.

Though a layer of guy humor rests none too lightly on the first few chapters, we would miss larger-than-life Meredith, Henry's administrative assistant by day and an online nudist by night (her site, by subscription only: EEEEVA EEEENORMOUS and her 46EEEE Twins). Henry's secret voyeurism and respect for her multifold talents add a rewarding touchstone to the plot. No one-note porn star, the highly intelligent Meredith devours the National Review, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. Back at headquarters, via e-mail, strictly business, she helps Henry in his mission to supply fresh water to the parched and needy citizens of Galado.

The call center, despite daily training sessions, is never quite up and running: No employees speak English, and Henry is mightily distracted by the political realities of Galado, by his conscience and by Maya, a native and his second in command.

"You don't want to be here, do you?" she asks Henry on his first day. He replies sarcastically: "In a tiny village in the middle of nowhere teaching workers from a drought-plagued region how to talk about crystal-clear water that comes in a container that, incidentally, is forbidden here?"

In "The Futurist" Othmer demonstrated a terrific eye for the absurd, for deflating the big, the pompous, the entitled. Sly sentence by sly sentence, "Holy Water" similarly does not have a wasted word. Once he gets Henry out of Manhattan and into Galado, the author walks a perfect line between satire and compassion. Less satisfying are the ambitious plot turns, in which Henry's altruism goes a little action-adventure. There is a lane switch in the last few chapters, not just into darker comedy but into a more solemnly muckraking tone. Momentum doesn't offer an easy glide to the finish. As Maya tells Henry, "You use your humor and your cynicism to protect what is essentially smothered idealism." The same could be said for the hand that spins this often brilliant, always caustic corporate satire.

Is the marketplace asking authors to James-Bond-up their plots? Might some readers wish Henry had stayed in suburban New York, commuting to Manhattan, Cheever meets Vonnegut, having faith in the domestic over global ambitions? We look forward to that down-size. Othmer is a smart, elegant, witty writer who could do small beautifully.

Elinor Lipman's ninth novel, "The Family Man," is now in paperback.

800-CEO-READ is a friend of HOLY WATER

Not sure if this is a first, but it's rare that a company such as 800-CEO-READ, which works with the world's best non-fiction business books and authors, highlights a novel. But they've been kind enough to discuss HOLY WATER on their blog, and run an excerpt from the novel's prologue, which is reprinted below.

June 17, 2010
Daily Blog: Holy Water

Like great fiction, good advertising tells a story. It creates an alternate reality we want to enter. So when an ad man like James P. Othmer writes fiction, he does so with a practiced skill set. You may know Othmer from his brilliant book on advertising from a year ago, Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet, which was named one of Fast Company’s Best Business Books of the Year and just came out in paperback. His new book, Holy Water, was released this week, and is his second novel (his first, The Futurist, was released in 1996).

When Chris Brogan visited our offices and saw the books scattered everywhere, he asked if we ever tire of reading all the business books that come through the office. My answer to him, and to the problem in general, is to read fiction at home. It’s always a pleasure to have those two worlds meet, when an author you like works successfully in both genres. And with the darkly comic and satirical Holy Water, Othmer has returned to fiction flawlessly, making me a very happy reader.

If you liked Adland, I’m sure you’ll like Othmer’s fiction. He was kind enough to share a sample with us. The following excerpt, the book’s introduction, sets the scene.



The river is burning down.

Or is it up? The river is burning up. More than a hundred feet up. And since his boat is upwind from the night-burning pit furnaces to the south and stars are shining defiantly in a sky that rarely allows them to and the white-tipped lesser Himalayas loom on either side of the valley to the east and west, he thinks that this is a disturbingly beautiful thing. This riverfire.

They didn’t tell him about this phenomenon at the executive briefing in Manhattan. The exit interview at the home office. Nowhere in the Winning Business Abroad Six Sigma Powerpoint presentation does he recall hearing anything about a body of water consumed by flame.

All they told him was, In this economy, be thankful you have a freakin’ job.

His groin aches. The epicenter of phantom pains. The karmic vortex. The fleshy receptacle of damaged memories. Formerly known as his testicles.

The fire is highest where debris collects in the crooked river’s bend.

He is a big believer in the symbolic weight of what song is playing at a particular moment. And if a song isn’t playing, he will assign a song to the moment and force the symbolism, revel in the false epiphany. His suggested soundtrack for this moment would be Spoon’s “The Beast and the Dragon Adored”.

“That’s beautiful. Is it some kind of welcome ceremony organized by the villagers?” he asks, even though he knows that this isn’t some kind of welcome ceremony organized by the villagers. He knows that the river up here was coated with a black skin of waste that was waiting to burn. Daring someone to light the match.

Like what? The Cuyahoga. Near Cleveland in 1969. He is too young to remember the actual fire but not too young to get his history from REM’s “Cuyahoga”.

This is where we walked, this is where we swam. . .

“It is not a ceremony,” explains his corporate liaison/host/executioner. “It is toxic, this river.” The man waves at the flaming water, as if it is a hyperkinetic child. “Sometimes it does that.”

Henry and the corporate liaison exchange a glance that signals a transition in their relationship. The end of bullshit. Previously the liaison had told him that a pro-democracy demonstration in the capital city was a birthday celebration for the King, that the black ash that fell like nightmare snow on Shangri-La Square was volcanic and that his country was a human rights champion despite the fact that it still hasn’t abolished slavery.

Let’s put our heads together and start a new country up. . .

He sees this as a bad thing, this sudden telling of the truth. He decides that the end of bullshit means they no longer care what he thinks. His hosts. His corporate partners. The diminished bureaucrats of a fading monarchy. Because someone to whom they have decided to tell the truth is obviously someone who no longer matters. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the Madison Avenue PR exec brought in to work the same spin magic her firm did for the Beijing games staring at her out of service iPhone and quietly weeping.
He decides to give the corporate liaison another chance to lie. To help matters, he even spells out the premise of the lie for him. “Maybe there was, you know, an accident. A tanker spill or a factory mishap. Perhaps the Chinese…”

The liaison shakes his head, lights an American cigarette. “No,” he answers. “Even rivers burn. This one… toxic, 24/7.”

Cuyahoga gone. . .

No one told him about any of this. No one told him about the corruption, the poverty, the malaprop billboard in the half-built “Free Zone” touting “Quality Manufactured Gods”. No one told him that the non-party constitutional democracy to which he was being extra-sourced was actually an unhinged monarchy which is, when the U.N. and Amnesty International aren’t looking, a dictatorship. No one told him about the delusional, profit and Bollywood-obsessed-despot in waiting. And no one told him that his five-star “spiritual eco lodge” with a private bathing garden, infinity pool and extensive spa menu was also a whorehouse that sat on a hilltop less than a mile from water-challenged village with one occasionally working pump that tapped into an aquifer of the most polluted and, as it turns out, flammable river on the planet.

Which would have been nice, since he works for a recently purchased subsidiary of an American held bottled water company whose mission statement, printed on the cover of its stunningly produced annual report, is “Bringing fresh water to a thirsty world.”

No one told him. But then again, it’s not like he’d asked a whole lot of questions.

“What do you put it out with?” Henry asks. The liaison doesn’t answer. He just watches the flames.

But the front man from the yet to be dispatched U.S. Congressional delegation, a young Republican who had vomited over the side of the boat less than ten minutes ago, does have an answer. “You put it out with truth,” he says. “And courage.”

This elicits laughter from the in-country deal maker for the biggest brand at the gates, the Wal-Mart delegation, which is just waiting for the proverbial green light. The wink and nod from the Palace. He removes the stem of a silver hashish pipe from his lips that had been passed to him by an Australian corporate mercenary. “Courage? My God, son. Don’t start going all John McCain on us now.”

Randy Newman had a Cuyahoga song, too. “Burn on, Big River”

He squirts a glob of Purel into his left palm and rubs as if it can kill nightmares and coup d’etats as well as 99.9 percent of most common germs.

Before he left New York he did the most perfunctory of searches. Google. Lonely Planet. An old atlas. It’s all he had time for, considering what he left, how fast it all happened. His old boss called it a chance to start over, opportunity to lose his inherent wussiness. His new boss, whom he is yet to meet, called it, via email, History waiting to happen, the next Bangalore. Wikipedia called it, “a secret and mysterious kingdom, long isolated from international politics and commerce.”

“Wow, what a shit-hole,” he hears the Wal-Mart guy say as they skirt east of the fire and drift past a shoreline village. Women with buckets are wading into those sections of the water that are not burning. Children are running along the river’s edge, keeping pace with the slow-moving boat.

He’s not sure where they’re taking him. Either to a party in his honor, he thinks, or to kill him, to preserve what’s left of theirs.
His soon to be ex-wife called it the perfect place for him to suffer the slow and painful death he deserves.
The woman with whom he thought he was falling in love called it something, too, but he can’t be sure because she said it in a language he doesn’t understand.

He doesn’t know and no one told him anything.

Yet here he is. A newly made VP of Global Water, Investor Relations, for a company whose headquarters he’s never seen, whose founders he just met and one of whom is huddled somewhere in the hold of this boat, on a burning river in a country he didn’t know existed three months ago.

As they reverse engines and slow alongside a floating dock at the far end of the village that his suspiciously beaming host had just called a shit-hole, he looks at the people gathering to meet them, to throw them a line, their faces aglow with hope and reflected riverfire.

Or is that hate instead of hope?

He listens for the symbolic song to accompany the moment. Perhaps a chant supplied by the locals or faint notes from a far-off boom box. Then, hearing only the wailing of strangers, he attempts to assign one. But this moment needs more than one song, he decides. It needs a soundtrack. A playlist.

A Mixtape for the Apocalypse.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

HOLY WATER available everywhere June 15

Good stuff coming this summer. In addition to local appearances and media on behalf of HOLY WATER, I just found out that at the end of August I'll be heading to Australia (with family) for two weeks of media and writers conferences and retreats. Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast and Brisbane. Thanks to my enthusiastic and brilliant new AUS/NZ publisher for HOLY WATER and ADLAND, UWA.

More to come soon, including, I'm hoping, some great news regarding the development of a major motion picture adaptation of THE FUTURIST.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

ADLAND out in paperback today!

The Vintage/Anchor trade paperback edition of ADLAND is now available wherever books are sold. Amazon has a nice discounted special for anyone who orders ADLAND together with my new novel HOLY WATER, coming from Doubleday on June 15.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fast Company on HOLY WATER: "Beach read for BlackBerry addicts."

"Nothing in the corporate world should shock anyone anymore. Whatever you think will happen won't, and whatever you think doesn't have a chance will sneak up and kick you in the ass." That's Henry Tuhoe's philosophy, and he's our knowing protagonist through this dark screwball business comedy by James P. Othmer. The action starts when a conglomerate transfers Tuhoe from marketing deodorant to setting up a call center for a bottled-water brand in a Himalayan country that has little potable H2O. As Tuhoe evolves from goofball to grown-up, Othmer, a former ad creative, keeps the action humming with satirical riffs on corporate trainers, figurehead founders, and how business really gets done in a developing nation. The book's gooey center inside its hard-candy shell is about finding meaning in work and life, and after all the high jinks in this beach read for BlackBerry addicts, Othmer has earned it. -- DL

Thursday, April 8, 2010

FROM THE DAILY BEAST: "I'm Tiger's Sex Addiction Counselor, and I approved this ad."

by James P. Othmer

The latest from Nike and Tiger Woods, dropped into rotation on ESPN and the Golf Channel just in time for his ballyhooed return to golf at the Masters, is not an ad. It’s a provocation. A collaboration between a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, a man who just got out of sex rehab and the voice of a dead man who, when he prowled amongst the living, probably could have used a bit of counseling if not rehab himself.

In a way, I can see why Nike would make it. It automatically puts the brand front and center in a national conversation on the eve of one of sport’s most prestigious events. Provocations are gold for brands, and there is no doubt that Tiger Woods is a brand. But why would Tiger Woods the wanna-be human green-light it? Why would he choose to let us know the inner workings of his troubled soul via a :30 second piece communications that at best is branding and at worst is insensitive propaganda?

Tiger likes to perpetuate the myth of Earl Woods almost as much as his own, but this commercial, which many have already called poignant and moving, isn’t just odd, it’s creepy.

The raw and purposely under-produced sound quality gives Earl Woods’s voiceover a sort of Rod Serling from the grave to your conscience feel. Team Nike/Tiger could have cleaned this up but I imagine the conversation in the edit involved a lot of talk about “authenticity”. What would a dead man’s words sound like? What does remorse look like (“shut up and look at the camera”). Should posthumous parental disgust sound crisp and polished or distressed and analog, like a sound artifact recovered from Edison’s workshop.

Then there are the words. “Did you learn anything?” asks Otherworldly Earl, the man who made Tiger in every sense of the word, and with whom Tiger still has issues that he has curiously chosen to work out through a commercial. "Tiger, I wanna find out what your thinking was. I wanna find out what your feelings are, and, did you learn anything." Well, yeah. So does everyone from Perez Hilton and TMZ to Katy Couric and the million other media outlets lurking outside the gates of Augusta, each of whom would love to have a heart-to-heart with him. By going there, by teasing and provoking us, Nike and Tiger are both brilliant and contemptible.

This is why I hate this ad. And why I can’t stop watching it.

Should “Subconsciously Spanked by Earl” be the lead track on the Nike-produced mix-tape labeled “Tiger’s Redemption”? Should Tiger still be listening to the guy who had him swinging a club in front of a TV camera when he was three, or on the TV show “That’s Incredible!” when he was five? Should he be still be getting love and life guidance from the ghost of a twice married man who has shocked and disappointed him with his own marital indiscretions?

The first thing I thought when I watched this spot is, What if, instead of Earl, Elin Woods was given an opportunity to lay down her own version of a voice track for this ad. Now that would be authentic. Even if she said the same words, but with a slightly different inflection: HAVE YOU LEARNED ANYTHING, TIGER?! I imagine re-mixed parody versions of this very concept are being downloaded for public consumption right now.

Despite the fact that he was by then a 33-year-old man, Tiger was still listening to Earl that night in Orlando, when he hit or was hit by all kinds of things, from fire hydrants to the realization that the non-stop booty call was over, to the effects of the prescription drug Ambien. A believable version of the story has him impaired that night because he was, if fact, taking Ambien—which Tiger began taking when Earl was dying.

So, even at 33, it’s still all about Daddy for Tiger. Which is why this is such a strange and troubling choice for Nike, and especially for Tiger. The question for Nike is, Does a swoosh-crazy public really want to see its hero on the brink being repeatedly spanked, this time by his Daddy? Or do they want him to shut up and play golf, and let us go back to re-mixing the Tiger narrative on our own terms? Nike claims the commercial (which it thoughtfully only “aired” until 4pm Wednesday but will of course live forever on YouTube) is a show of support for Tiger. But at a certain point the accumulation of mea culpas and serial chastisement takes on the stench of James Frey on Oprah. And last I checked, Frey didn’t have a footwear and apparel deal.

For human-not-brand Tiger and his family, the questions are more complicated. Perhaps it would have made more sense if, a la political ads, this latest from Nike ended with a legal voiceover that said, “I’m Tiger Woods’ Sex Addiction Therapist, and I approved this ad.”

James P. Othmer is the author of ADLAND: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet and the novel THE FUTURIST.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From the Daily Beast: Don Draper Takes on Health Care

by James P. Othmer

President Obama is about to undertake the most daunting branding challenge in recent history: Sell skeptical America on a plan that doesn’t kick in until 2014. Former advertising executive James P. Othmer gives Obamacare a Madison Avenue makeover.

Obama is not a brand. Just ask Desiree Rogers, the former White House social secretary who made the mistake last spring of equating the president of the United States with the tagline for the soft drink Snapple when she told WSJ magazine, "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand.” Now, she’s looking for work.

Similarly, health-care reform is not a product. Just ask the dozens of corporations, industry coalitions, and political organizations on both sides of the issue who have thrown tens of millions of dollars into TV ads, and who will start it all over again today, with fresh campaigns to sell or un-sell the unbranded non-product that is health-care reform.

The Brand Obama that I want to see moving forward is the one too busy fixing things to stop to talk to the likes of me.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that presidents do continue to be a brands even after elections, and that their policies are the products upon which their equity is built and that in the case of health-care reform, the real selling has only just begun.

In advertising parlance, the product (health-care reform) is pretty much the same, but now the brief (how to sell it) has significantly changed. Sunday, Obama was selling something to consumers who had a choice. Today, he is selling the justification of a product that, like it or not, will be a part of every American’s life. And he’s selling it to a demographic filled with a Toyota-esque anger and cynicism and a deepening sense that neither side is telling anything near the truth.

In a product brief, the first question often posed by an agency to its client is, Why are you advertising? The most recent and frequent answer to this hypothetical question from Messrs. Plouffe and Axelrod seems to be along the lines of “To demystify and clearly explain the legislation, especially for the enraged half of the population that wants nothing to do with it.” It’s a valid enough intent, but one has to wonder how they can have more success, post-legislation, enlightening a jaded, cynical audience about an issue it can no longer influence. Early reports mention the likelihood of a talking points campaign that will attempt to break down in 30-second spots that which could not be sufficiently explained by either side for more than a year. Good luck with that.

Indeed, at 2,700 pages, with an additional 153 pages of last-minute changes, this is a product that seems to defy advertising and, if anything, seems designed to confuse. Instead, for a public that basically wants to know, How will this effect me?, what’s needed isn’t so much an ad but some kind of James Cameron-invented, alternate-reality avatar module that will immerse consumers onto the planet Healthora, where every one of us will play the role of Jake Sully and our health care future will finally, magically, make sense, down to the last penny on our monthly premium.

Often, an agency will look to case histories of similar products and marketplaces for lessons learned before determining a course of action, and it’s been reported that the Obama administration has been studying the public’s reception to President Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid reform of 1965. Again, not a bad thought, but the circumstances surrounding the two bills are vastly different. Johnson announced his intentions for reform as part of his vision for a “Great Society” during his State of the Union Address in February 1965. It was passed by the end of July by a margin of 307-116 in the House and 70-24 in the Senate. Not one Republican voted for the Obama legislation. Also, in a nice piece of branding, I mean statesmanship, Johnson signed his bill in Independence, Missouri, and enrolled none other than Harry S Truman and Bess Truman as the first card-carrying Medicare beneficiaries.

While some may realize immediate benefits from Obama’s program, the vast majority of the population won’t see results, positive or negative, until enrollment commences sometime in 2014. For an instant-gratification world quick to judge, this is a long time to keep the populace informed, engaged, and satisfied, especially compared to the fact that two months after Johnson’s legislation passed, more than 1 million Medicare patients had already been admitted to hospitals. Increasingly in adland the concept of a campaign, or a fixed period of time during which an advertising message is broadcast, is becoming obsolete. In a 24/7 media cycle during which consumers can pick and choose when and where they want to engage with content, it’s important to keep the dialogue going, but not to inundate.

My advice to the president: Do the heavy lifting behind the scenes and keep your message in, and your face out of, the next waves of ads. Over the last year we’ve all kind of seen too much process, from the town halls to the Tea Parties to the back slapping and hand shaking taking place on the Senate floor Sunday night between people who had spent the day calling each other baby killers and racists. Transparency in branding and in politics is a good thing in 2010. Ubiquity, not so much.

The Brand Obama that I want to see moving forward is the one too busy fixing things to stop to talk to the likes of me. When the bill is handed to you act like you’ve been there before and will soon be there again. For instance, don’t Tweet: “In your face, Rush! #HR 3590.” Do tell thanks, but there’s no need for a celebratory health-care song on YouTube. In fact, given the public mood, it might be a good idea to go as far as to somehow "misplace" your NCAA pool (especially if you have Cornell making the Sweet 16). To win again would only be construed as an act of unconscionable hubris.

Finally, regarding the signing: At all costs, avoid using the words Mission and Accomplished; avoid giving any speeches on aircraft carrier decks or standing on top of a hospital gurney in full surgical scrubs. In fact, rather than travel to Independence, Missouri, or to some medical facility where someone is receiving the first token benefit, stay back at the office. Take a few minutes from your incredibly busy day spent fixing Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy and helping people who’d be a lot less likely to be sick in the first place if they had jobs, and put pen to paper. Sure, let someone film it. It might make for a nice ad in 2012. Then get back to work.

James P. Othmer is the author of ADLAND: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet and the novel The Futurist.