The following is from Ben Purkert’s debut novel The Men Can’t Be Saved. Purkert is the author of the poetry collection For the Love of Endings. His work appears in The New Yorker, the Nation, and the Kenyon Review, among others. He is the founder of Back Draft, a Guernica interview series focused on revision and the creative process. He holds degrees from Harvard and New York University, and he currently teaches at Rutgers.
I’m tempted to lie, of course. I’m tempted to tell you that I fully anticipated it would go viral. Or at least had an intuition. An inkling that what I’d written was destined for—and surely deserving of— what would follow.
In case you don’t remember the ad, I’ll refresh your memory. A shirtless old guy is holding an ax. And he’s walking through a forest, stepping over rocks and ferns, until he arrives at a particular tree. It’s not the tallest one around, but there’s something about it. He draws close, then touches his hand to the bark like it’s the face of a long-lost friend. A tender scene. Romantic, almost. But he’s got a job to do. Simple as that.
We never actually see chopping. We only see him, with his surprisingly firm pecs and glistening torso, loading his haul into his pickup, then heading home to his adoring wife. When she greets him on the front porch with a flirty smile and an ice-cold beer, he sighs with total contentment. He’s truly living the life.
And you figure that’s it, that’s the ad. It’s another beer commercial, big deal. But you’ve been set up. This old guy, with his perfect body and his perfect beverage and his perfect wife, is sitting on a dirty secret: there’s a steaming hot dump in his pants. Thankfully, with Smackdale All-Absorb Incontinence Men’s Underwear, no need to sweat it. Heavy-duty protection—day in, day out! Go bigger. Go bolder. (Pause.) Everyday Briefs for the Everyday Hero.
People initially took it for parody. It was a skit, they figured, not a real ad for a real product. How thrillingly disorienting when they learned otherwise, as if the bounds of their reality had been stretched.
The ad hit a million views in one week, seven million the next. The spike in sales was similarly exponential. In one fiscal quarter, Smackdale moved more adult diapers than the entire year prior, more than the company’s puny offshore manufacturing arm could sustain. And while it’s true that I didn’t write the whole ad—just the tagline in fact—those six words were the campaign’s crown jewel. I dare say that, without my tagline, the ad would’ve fizzled out in obscurity. Inspired, the client called it.
I brushed aside the praise, more or less. After all, the client was an authority on underwear, not the creative arts. Then advertising award season rolled around. I wasn’t invited to the ceremonies— seating was reserved for executives, no junior copywriters permitted on the premises—but one week later, I tore through my office mail to discover a four-pound glimmering rhombus of Swarovski crystal. And there I was—SETH TARANOFF, italics and all caps—engraved along the base. I couldn’t brush aside this recognition as easily. When I ran my index finger back and forth along the engraving, it felt deep.
My colleagues took notice. Who was this prodigy spinning shit accounts into gold? The other copywriters grew especially clingy. Seth, can we bounce ideas off you? Rather than dignify their pleading with a reply, I’d turn and motion for them to follow me down the corridor, dragging them breathless as I carried out tasks. Had they managed to keep up, I might’ve offered a few pearls of wisdom as a consolation prize. I always lost them after a lap.
Along the way, I’d drop in on the designers, specifically Josie. Just a year or so over thirty, she was already considered an industry veteran. Her desk was perpetually in disarray, piled high with papers. Buy shelves, I’d say. Buy them for me, she’d hit back. Her voice had an alluring elasticity that snapped my ears to attention. Whenever I’d find her hunched before the glare of her monitor, I’d sneak up from behind to deliver a playful jolt to her chair. It was our little game, and an easy one at that; her eyes tended to lock on her screen, so I could approach undetected. But there was no winning with her, or at least no concession of victory. Even when her shoulders jumped and an audible gasp escaped her lips, she’d claim I failed in my attempt to surprise. Next time, she’d say, and nothing more.
As I’d stroll back toward my desk, I’d pass the partners’ offices and hear my name summoned from behind frosted glass. Less clingy, perhaps, than my fellow writers, though supplicants all the same: Hey, can I get your eyes on this? or I’d love to pick your brain! They’d only ever request use of my component parts—my eyes, my brain—as if they implicitly understood themselves unworthy of the whole.
Diego, our chief creative director, invited me daily into his expansive office. It had the look of a well-curated art museum’s gift shop: framed charcoal sketches and loose onyx bookends and a hand- carved teak figurine sliced out of some rain forest’s heart. (A dozen rhombuses along his window, most of which, I never failed to note, had collected a decade’s worth of dust.) Sitting opposite him, I’d curl up in his egg-shaped chair like an unborn hatchling and, in fits of boredom, fantasize about punching through its fiberglass shell. It wasn’t that Diego was boring but that he strained so hard to appear not boring. He often referenced working as an apprentice to a famous East Village sculptor—But that, he’d say with a wistful air, stroking his bald and imperfectly round head, was in a prior life. I never asked him about it, never permitted him any life but this one.
Seth, he’d begin, where are we going?
I got what he meant. He was asking about the future of our industry, or maybe our agency specifically. Founded as an advertising shop, RazorBeat was undergoing a big transition: our focus was turning to brands now, not ads. But what might tomorrow hold? And the day after? Oracle that I was, I offered some sincere guesses, but mostly I stirred random nouns and verbs into the air. He’d nod, stare out his window, and rub his temples raw from deep contemplation.
Diego freaking loved—I’m borrowing his phrasing—my confidence. It didn’t matter if a meeting went well or bombed; it was critical to maintain one’s swagger. He’d staffed me on all his accounts, so he had a front-row seat when my presentations weren’t well received. Sometimes he’d lose his nerve. He’d deploy one of his trusty clichés in a panicked fit. Perhaps we could find common ground? Perhaps we could meet in the middle? I refused to be displaced. And really, I held firm for his sake. I had to set an example for him to follow. He was my boss in name only. He had, by nature, an apprentice’s disposition.
It was obvious from the moment I started working at RazorBeat that Diego had feelings for me. It was all right there in plain sight: when he paid compliments on my new haircut; when he urged me to invest in a pair of pants that hugged the thigh; when he begged that I give him the name of my personal trainer and then, upon learning I didn’t have one, erupted in a shrill pip of disbelief. I let all this go, of course. He saw me, in his words, as The Future of RazorBeat. It needed to stay that way.
Then one morning he called me into his office and explained he had a proposal. Specialization, he said. He was outfitted in his typical fashion of subtraction: clear rimless glasses, wristwatch sans numerals, black V-neck tee with no overshirt. He kept both elbows high at his sides, hands knotted under his chin. Ordinarily he was given to fidgeting, but not now. Even his eyes sat stiff in their sockets.
Specialize? But I already was a specialist! Taglines were my domain. My copywriting colleagues possessed other so-called expertise. They spent their days toiling on dense blocks of web content, an impenetrable architecture of product details and disclaimers. I did the blueprint; they did the bricklaying.
He said I was thinking too horizontally. Recalling the breakout success of Smackdale, he suggested I concentrate on the men’s health sector, a booming vertical with untapped potential. And, if I was agreeable, he had the perfect client. Though technically this new account wasn’t his. Another RazorBeat partner was managing it.
I stared at Diego as if from an arctic distance. A booming vertical with untapped potential? Who was he kidding? It wasn’t just the offensiveness of the suggestion itself, but that he was so blatantly straining to sell me on it. It seemed foolish from a business perspective. Diego and I, while not ideally suited to each other, had good chemistry in presentations. We were an effective duo, recent hiccups aside. So why pair me with someone else?
I popped out of his egg and left without a word, slamming the door shut behind me. I vowed the silent treatment for days, weeks possibly. That same afternoon I blocked him on RazorChat, deleted our standing catch-up from my calendar, and swore to myself I’d never set foot in his office again. Or at least not with him in it—only with Josie, and only late at night, long after everyone else had left, cleaning crew included, so there was nobody but us.
From The Men Can’t Be Saved by Ben Purkert. Used with permission of the publisher, The Overlook Press. Copyright © 2023 by Ben Purkert.