|"Thank You For Smoking," by Christopher Buckley|
Christopher Buckley’s 1994 satirical novel “Thank You For Smoking” is still a trenchant and wickedly funny book, even 20 years after it was first published. “Thank You For Smoking” tells the story of Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobby spokesperson, or “smokesman,” as he is often dubbed. Naylor works for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, which pumps out highly dubious studies that purport to show no link between smoking and cancer. Naylor delights in the challenge of arguing the seemingly inarguable, and some of the funniest scenes in the book are when Buckley paints Naylor in a corner, like having him confronted with a young cancer patient on “Oprah,” and seeing Naylor wriggle out of the jam. Naylor would be even more at home in 2014 rather than 1994, as the proliferation of cable news and the Internet has often proved that dubious arguments can sound plausible when they come from attractive visages.
Buckley has a lot of fun with the lunch meetings that Naylor has with his friends Polly and Bobby Jay, who are spokespeople for the liquor and firearms industries. They call themselves the “Mod Squad,” with mod standing for “merchants of death.” Like Nick, Polly and Bobby Jay are somewhat defensive about their jobs, so they take great comfort in each other, often arguing about who has the worst job.
“Thank You For Smoking” follows Nick as he battles not only smoking opponents, but also his boss BR, who isn’t very fond of Nick, and his comely co-worker Jeannette, who is clearly angling to take Nick’s job. However, Nick has someone on his side because “The Captain,” an old man who is one of the most powerful men in the tobacco industry, thinks very highly of him. Nick becomes the Captain’s golden boy, and gets sent out to Hollywood to convince movie executives to feature more smoking in their films. An assistant to a big-shot producer tells Nick:
“We’ve got this CIA movie deal project in the works, it’s going to be very big. The idea is the CIA thinks Franklin Roosevelt is too cozy with Stalin, so they kill him so Truman will get in and nuke the Japanese. Fabulous Film.”
“Sounds great. But I don’t think the CIA existed back in 1945.”
“I think it started in ’47.”
“It’s a little late to change the whole premise.”
The movie producer eventually decides that the best way to promote cigarettes in a movie is to set it in the future. But Nick hesitates, asking, “But don’t you explode if you light up in a spaceship? All that oxygen?”
“It’s the twenty-sixth century. They’ve thought that through. That can be fixed with one line of script.”
But things start to fall apart for Nick when he is kidnapped and nearly killed as his kidnappers cover his body with nicotine patches, intending to give Nick a lethal dose of nicotine. However, Nick survives the attack. “Dr. Williams said that, ironically, it was his smoking that had probably saved him. That many patches on a nonsmoker would almost certainly have brought about cardiac arrest sooner.”
Nick starts reaching crisis mode as he’s enjoying the company of Jeannette, and also a female reporter who he is unable to resist. The FBI starts investigating Nick’s kidnapping, but eventually it becomes clear that they are more and more suspicious of Nick’s activities, even thinking that he may have faked the whole thing. And that’s where I’ll leave the plot summary, not wanting to spoil the whole thing.
It’s very clear that Christopher Buckley knows his way around the corridors of power, as he describes the various D.C. types that inhabit his novel. Buckley pokes fun at both sides of the smoking debate, the media, Hollywood movie moguls, and stupidity and hypocrisy in general. Throughout the book, Buckley fires off great lines like, “The achievement of car phones is that your morning can now be ruined even before you get to the office.” Just substitute “cell” for “car” in that sentence and it’s even more true today. If you’re in the mood for a very funny satire of lobbyists, and Washington D.C. culture, pick up “Thank You For Smoking.” The only way it can be hazardous to your health is if you laugh too much.