Sunday, January 20, 2019

Book Review: "Talk to Me" by John Kenney

"But deep down in places he rarely allowed himself to go, Ted knew he was a lie. A handsome, large-headed, reasonably intelligent lie. They had made him this thing, this...character, this cartoon, really, where once, long ago, Ted had been a reporter. A writer."

Ted Grayson is a well-respected television news anchor. At 59, he's one of the last bastions of the "old guard" of news media, as television networks battle with cable and internet for ratings and advertising dollars. The definition of what is "news" has also changed since he got his start, and at times he doesn't even recognize the industry he's working in.

But while he is well-regarded by the viewers, his family doesn't have the same opinions about Ted. He and his wife, Claire, have been estranged for some time (following a long period of time where they were estranged even while living in the same house). She is weary after years of neglect, infidelity, and Ted's need to chase a story instead of actively participate in his marriage. Ted's daughter, Franny, hates him. Nothing he does is not deserving of scorn, even if Franny has more than her own share of issues.

"Life changes. This was the essence of news. Why did it come as such a shock to an anchorman?"

One night, in the middle of a newscast, things go spectacularly awry. Ted loses his temper and goes on a profanity-laced and misogynistic rant. It's a momentary lapse, but it doesn't wind up on camera, so everyone is hoping it will blow over. But then it hits the internet, and then it's a matter of minutes before Ted, and everything he represents, wind up in big trouble. Everyone has an opinion, and none of them are anything less than career-ending.

Franny, who works for a popular "news" website, watches her father's downfall with bemusement. But when it is suggested that she interview Ted for an article to help bolster her somewhat-flagging prospects at the site, she isn't sure whether she really hates her father enough to make career hay at his expense. Ted, on the other hand, wonders if it matters at all what Franny writes. Maybe he does deserve everything that's coming to him. Or maybe it's an opportunity to gain some control of himself before it really is too late.

John Kenney's Talk to Me is the story of a man whose career—and his life—are in freefall. It's a look at what it's like to finally have to come to terms with the choices you've made and whether you would make them again, and at whose expense you've made them. Ted's problems aren't unique—we've seen this type of story play out many times in real life, both involving celebrities and "real" people.

At the same time, this is a book about our scandal-hungry society, how the media loves to put people up on a pedestal only to gleefully knock them down when they make a mistake. It's a commentary about how quickly bad news, errors, or misdeeds travel, and the ripples they cause. It's also a look at the balance between news and entertainment, and how easy it has become to confuse the latter for the former.

When the book focused on Ted and his downfall, and how clueless he really was about the ramifications of what he did, I really enjoyed Talk to Me. But the more it focused on the outrage caused by Ted's rant, the reactions of those in society and the media, and the machinations of Franny's boss, I didn't find the book as interesting. I guess I feel like we're living in that society right now, and I didn't need much more of an analysis of how angry and unforgiving we can be to those who do things we perceive to be egregious.

Kenney is a great writer, and he has achieved a tough feat of making you care about unlikable characters. Ted and Franny in particular were complex, flawed yet sympathetic characters whose trajectories I understood. I didn't feel as if Kenney gave Claire as much depth, and I found a tangential storyline with an old roommate of Franny's to be mostly unnecessary.

So while I wasn't head over heels for Talk to Me, there are enough redeeming qualities to recommend it. There's some real emotion here amidst the melee, and it is those moments that make this book worthwhile.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

No comments:

Post a Comment