Holy Water: An Excerpt

June 17, 2010


Like great fiction, good advertising tells a story. It creates an alternate reality we want to enter. So when an ad man like James P.

Like great fiction, good advertising tells a story. It creates an alternate reality we want to enter. So when an ad man like James P. Othmer writes fiction, he does so with a practiced skill set. You may know Othmer from his brilliant book on advertising from a year ago, Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet, which was named one of Fast Company's Best Business Books of the Year and just came out in paperback. His new book, Holy Water, was released this week, and is his second novel (his first, The Futurist, was released in 1996).

When Chris Brogan visited our offices and saw the books scattered everywhere, he asked if we ever tire of reading all the business books that come through the office. My answer to him, and to the problem in general, is to read fiction at home. It's always a pleasure to have those two worlds meet, when an author you like works successfully in both genres. And with the darkly comic and satirical Holy Water, Othmer has returned to fiction flawlessly, making me a very happy reader.

If you liked Adland, I'm sure you'll like Othmer's fiction. He was kind enough to share a sample with us. The following excerpt, the book's introduction, sets the scene.



The river is burning down.

Or is it up? The river is burning up. More than a hundred feet up. And since his boat is upwind from the night-burning pit furnaces to the south and stars are shining defiantly in a sky that rarely allows them to and the white-tipped lesser Himalayas loom on either side of the valley to the east and west, he thinks that this is a disturbingly beautiful thing. This riverfire.

They didn't tell him about this phenomenon at the executive briefing in Manhattan. The exit interview at the home office. Nowhere in the Winning Business Abroad Six Sigma Powerpoint presentation does he recall hearing anything about a body of water consumed by flame.

All they told him was, In this economy, be thankful you have a freakin' job.

His groin aches. The epicenter of phantom pains. The karmic vortex. The fleshy receptacle of damaged memories. Formerly known as his testicles.

The fire is highest where debris collects in the crooked river's bend.

He is a big believer in the symbolic weight of what song is playing at a particular moment. And if a song isn't playing, he will assign a song to the moment and force the symbolism, revel in the false epiphany. His suggested soundtrack for this moment would be Spoon's "The Beast and the Dragon Adored".

"That's beautiful. Is it some kind of welcome ceremony organized by the villagers?" he asks, even though he knows that this isn't some kind of welcome ceremony organized by the villagers. He knows that the river up here was coated with a black skin of waste that was waiting to burn. Daring someone to light the match.

Like what? The Cuyahoga. Near Cleveland in 1969. He is too young to remember the actual fire but not too young to get his history from REM's "Cuyahoga".

This is where we walked, this is where we swam. . .

"It is not a ceremony," explains his corporate liaison/host/executioner. "It is toxic, this river." The man waves at the flaming water, as if it is a hyperkinetic child. "Sometimes it does that."

Henry and the corporate liaison exchange a glance that signals a transition in their relationship. The end of bullshit. Previously the liaison had told him that a pro-democracy demonstration in the capital city was a birthday celebration for the King, that the black ash that fell like nightmare snow on Shangri-La Square was volcanic and that his country was a human rights champion despite the fact that it still hasn't abolished slavery.

Let's put our heads together and start a new country up. . .

He sees this as a bad thing, this sudden telling of the truth. He decides that the end of bullshit means they no longer care what he thinks. His hosts. His corporate partners. The diminished bureaucrats of a fading monarchy. Because someone to whom they have decided to tell the truth is obviously someone who no longer matters. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the Madison Avenue PR exec brought in to work the same spin magic her firm did for the Beijing games staring at her out of service iPhone and quietly weeping. He decides to give the corporate liaison another chance to lie. To help matters, he even spells out the premise of the lie for him. "Maybe there was, you know, an accident. A tanker spill or a factory mishap. Perhaps the Chinese..."

The liaison shakes his head, lights an American cigarette. "No," he answers. "Even rivers burn. This one... toxic, 24/7."

Cuyahoga gone. . .

No one told him about any of this. No one told him about the corruption, the poverty, the malaprop billboard in the half-built "Free Zone" touting "Quality Manufactured Gods". No one told him that the non-party constitutional democracy to which he was being extra-sourced was actually an unhinged monarchy which is, when the U.N. and Amnesty International aren't looking, a dictatorship. No one told him about the delusional, profit and Bollywood-obsessed-despot in waiting. And no one told him that his five-star "spiritual eco lodge" with a private bathing garden, infinity pool and extensive spa menu was also a whorehouse that sat on a hilltop less than a mile from water-challenged village with one occasionally working pump that tapped into an aquifer of the most polluted and, as it turns out, flammable river on the planet.

Which would have been nice, since he works for a recently purchased subsidiary of an American held bottled water company whose mission statement, printed on the cover of its stunningly produced annual report, is "Bringing fresh water to a thirsty world."

No one told him. But then again, it's not like he'd asked a whole lot of questions.

"What do you put it out with?" Henry asks. The liaison doesn't answer. He just watches the flames.

But the front man from the yet to be dispatched U.S. Congressional delegation, a young Republican who had vomited over the side of the boat less than ten minutes ago, does have an answer. "You put it out with truth," he says. "And courage."

This elicits laughter from the in-country deal maker for the biggest brand at the gates, the Wal-Mart delegation, which is just waiting for the proverbial green light. The wink and nod from the Palace. He removes the stem of a silver hashish pipe from his lips that had been passed to him by an Australian corporate mercenary. "Courage? My God, son. Don't start going all John McCain on us now."

Randy Newman had a Cuyahoga song, too. "Burn on, Big River"

He squirts a glob of Purel into his left palm and rubs as if it can kill nightmares and coup d'etats as well as 99.9 percent of most common germs.

Before he left New York he did the most perfunctory of searches. Google. Lonely Planet. An old atlas. It's all he had time for, considering what he left, how fast it all happened. His old boss called it a chance to start over, opportunity to lose his inherent wussiness. His new boss, whom he is yet to meet, called it, via email, History waiting to happen, the next Bangalore. Wikipedia called it, "a secret and mysterious kingdom, long isolated from international politics and commerce."

"Wow, what a shit-hole," he hears the Wal-Mart guy say as they skirt east of the fire and drift past a shoreline village. Women with buckets are wading into those sections of the water that are not burning. Children are running along the river's edge, keeping pace with the slow-moving boat.

He's not sure where they're taking him. Either to a party in his honor, he thinks, or to kill him, to preserve what's left of theirs. His soon to be ex-wife called it the perfect place for him to suffer the slow and painful death he deserves. The woman with whom he thought he was falling in love called it something, too, but he can't be sure because she said it in a language he doesn't understand.

He doesn't know and no one told him anything.

Yet here he is. A newly made VP of Global Water, Investor Relations, for a company whose headquarters he's never seen, whose founders he just met and one of whom is huddled somewhere in the hold of this boat, on a burning river in a country he didn't know existed three months ago.

As they reverse engines and slow alongside a floating dock at the far end of the village that his suspiciously beaming host had just called a shit-hole, he looks at the people gathering to meet them, to throw them a line, their faces aglow with hope and reflected riverfire.

Or is that hate instead of hope?

He listens for the symbolic song to accompany the moment. Perhaps a chant supplied by the locals or faint notes from a far-off boom box. Then, hearing only the wailing of strangers, he attempts to assign one. But this moment needs more than one song, he decides. It needs a soundtrack. A playlist.

A Mixtape for the Apocalypse.

Excerpted from Holy Water by James P. Othmer Copyright 2010 by James P. Othmer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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