Some lessons are a joy to learn.
To be sure, that's hardly true for young Happy, The Learners' endearing adman hero, who gets a lesson that challenges his most firmly held beliefs about himself.
But for readers unfamiliar with Chip Kidd or type fonts and graphic design, his book offers an enjoyable introduction to another world and a major writing talent.
A follow-up to Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys, this darkly witty novel follows recent graduate Happy as he takes his first job at a New Haven, Conn., ad agency in the early '60s. (It's the same time period and business as AMC's Mad Men, but where those TV men are cutthroats at the top of the advertising food chain, Kidd's heroes are nicer guys nearer the bottom.) Comic adventures ensue, until Happy answers his own ad for a project that turns out to be real-life researcher Stanley Milgram's infamous teacher/learner experiment on authority and obedience.
Where other writers have used the experiment to ask "what would you do," Kidd uses it to ask "how would you feel after you did it." For Happy, as it may be for anyone, the lesson is that most of us are neither as good as we may think or as bad as we may fear.
Best known for his book-jacket designs, Kidd puts the story on pause at times so he can discuss design, literary styles and the link between form and content.
The interludes may be self-conscious, but they're also genuinely interesting and mercifully brief. And they never detract from the main pleasures of novel.
Kidd has a number of goals and tricks in mind, and some of them do clash.
But unlike many contemporary comic novelists, he's smart enough to tie his new-fangled gimmicks to some old-fashioned virtues: sympathetic characters, funny lines, a firm grasp of time and place, and a plot that makes surprising shifts without ever losing its way.
The comedy may be too broad at times for some, and Kidd's women, while amusing, are less believable than his men, but that's something he can work on for the next book. As it is, this one certifies him as an author to watch.