Up and Down
By Terry Fallis
Douglas Gibson/M&S, 432 pages, $23
AT first blush, this comic novel about how professional spin doctors plan to reignite interest in the North American space program may only appeal to those who work in public relations.
But it quickly becomes a much broader tale, with entertaining plot twists designed to engage anyone looking for hilarious and astute commentary on the differences between Canadians and Americans.
Up and Down is the third novel by Canadian writer Terry Fallis. His first novel, The Best Laid Plans (2008), began as a podcast before it was self-published and won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour.
Its critical success spawned re-publication by McClelland & Stewart and it was crowned the 2011 winner of CBC's Canada Reads. His followup, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal.
As in The High Road, Fallis explores what happens to hearts and minds when truth is revealed. But he takes his time getting there.
The central character is a Parliament Hill media relations guru, David Stewart, who worked for the minister of science and technology as a liaison for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). He leaves his post to be nearer to family in Toronto and lands a public relations gig at an international firm.
David is dropped into the deep end of the PR world, with an important pitch on the immediate horizon. His knowledge of the CSA is the key reason he was hired, as his new employer is developing a proposal for a huge potential client, NASA.
In addition to brainstorming about how to promote space travel, David quickly learns about office politics, the importance of billable hours, and of getting along with competitive Canadian and American colleagues who can't decide whether he is a threat or an asset.
Fallis astutely captures the process of preparing for a big pitch. The tension, excitement, adrenaline and rehearsals for the momentous meeting are stressful and realistic. The story's central concept (reigniting interest in space travel) is spot-on because art is indeed imitating life. (British business mogul Richard Branson is currently promoting space tourism and Austrian extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner recently became the first skydiver to fall faster than the speed of sound.)
As the NASA meeting nears, the affable and self-deprecating David and his two experienced, level-headed, fashionable, "strategy-first" PR bosses work with their American counterparts on the overall game plan. In a comic twist, after a rather snooze-inducing presentation, David throws a Hail Mary to win the account: a citizen astronaut contest idea, where one average Canadian and one average American would win a chance to accompany real astronauts into space. It works.
What follows is a fascinating story of the divergence of Canadian and American values, the importance of family, unlikely friendship, second chances, ageism, a love of Sherlock Holmes, insight into the awe-inspiring world of space travel, and the importance of using your head but following your heart.
Deborah Bowers is a Winnipeg marketing and communications strategist.