Sam Spiegel is an ad guy. He starts in the 1970s on Madison Avenue, working under major stars at DDB, and witnessing legendary pitches. Then his father summons him home, and he takes over the family business: A run-down Philadelphia ad agency, turning it into a major player.
The Minefields is a roman á clef based on the author’s life. We know this because, late in the tale, a character tells Sam that he should write a book, and when Sam says he’d have to name names, his companion shrugs and suggests making it a novel.
This kind of heavy-handed exposition is one problem with The Minefields, but there are others. I want to jump in with the good news first: It really is fun about advertising. The pitches are clever, the immediacy is there when campaigns are described and problems solved. If you’re looking for a novel that illuminates the ad business, you might really enjoy it. I should add, though, that this isn’t Mad Men: It’s a Jewish guy, the son of a Holocaust survivor, in a very different era, so if you’re looking for a period piece this might not be for you.
The problem with the book is that it is a novel. As a memoir, this book would really have worked. Sam Spiegel is an egoist and lacks a lot of insight I’d have liked. When betrayed by his friends, he concludes they were always jealous of his success, and had waited for years to enjoy a chink in his armor. As non-fiction, you can appreciate a self-centered guy who doesn’t know why his friends turned on him, but in fiction, you want some character insight, and “they’ve always been jealous” doesn’t cut it. I came away knowing little about Sam’s wife, although she’s a major character, because he seems to know little about her. From the first pages, we know the marriage is troubled, but the novel struggles to tell us why. Is it resentment? Lack of intimacy? Who is Amy Spiegel and how does she feel? Although she is described, I never saw inside of her.
Another problem is the dialogue. I feel like someone in a writing class once told Steven Eisner that he had a gift for dialogue, because there’s an awful lot of it, and it reeks of an author being pleased with himself. Here’s a business associate talking to Sam about leaving the company after they won a pitch for a lottery account:
“I don’t know how much further you can take this place, but you’ve already taken it further than all those doubting Toms ever thought you could. Keep powering ahead, Sam. I knew early on what you were made of and wanted in. Humility aside, always remember what we’ve built. While you’ve been captaining the lottery win and deserve an ovation from “yours truly,” I’ve been deflating like a battered and bruised balloon. You know how they get after the helium goes away…whipped and gnarly like debris left on the floor by the bleachers. That’s how I’m feeling now, Sam.”
There’s a snappiness that works here, but the tone isn’t right for the moment, and it’s definitely self-conscious. This same snappy tone is in dialogue that occurs in therapy sessions, in romantic interludes, and in ad pitches (where it absolutely belongs and sounds at home).
The bottom line on The Minefields depends on why you read a book. If you want an immersive novel, this isn’t it. If you want an ad business romp, you might really enjoy it.
Full disclosure: I received this book as a review copy.