Thank You for Smoking
© 1994 Christopher Buckley
Nick Naylor may be one of the most hated men in America, because his job is to serve as the legal guardian and advocate of Big Tobacco –and he is very, very good at his job. Nick Naylor is a man who can be invited onto Oprah, and turn an ambush with a teenage cancer patient into a triumph for his own side. Thank You For Smoking is a story of business intrigue as Naylor wrestles victory from looming defeat, only to be subjected to cold-blooded revenge. A work of political satire, it bloodies noses all around.
Naylor, like most modern protagonists, is not the model hero; there are few admirable things about him, other than his devotion to his son’s education. That education is financed by him lying through his teeth on national television on a daily basis, sure, but it’s impressive lying. Although he does his part to prepare, staying abreast of medical reports and the like, most of his finessing the truth is impromptu. His fleet-footedness is impressive, even if he is a scoundrel with the discretion of a randy chimp. Eventually he has his private moment of reckoning, a bit of soul-searching that ends the novel.
The in-between is fun, a look into the lifestyle of the rich and infamous. This is a dark comedy, which would be more comedic than dark were it not for the main character’s job occupation. He meets with a few friends every week for lunch, companions who represent the alcohol and firearms lobbies. Their tongue-in-cheek name for themselves is the MOD squad – for they are the merchants of death. Fun with names is a common trope here; Nick refers to nicotine, of course, and a stop-smoking group uses the acronym NOMAS, which is ‘no more’ for Spanish speakers. If characters take themselves seriously, it is only in a pompous way that makes them easier targets for the reader to laugh at. Even an attempt at murder involves worldplay. The laughter stops after Nick is threatened with death on live TV, and then assaulted after he cheerfully loses his security detail. The book quickly becomes a thriller at that point.
Thank You for Smoking is not nearly as depressing as They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, and the characters offer much less room for melancholy. They’re an awful bunch, but have their moments. It’s a fast read, and I enjoyed the fact that while Buckley doesn’t shy away from sinister goings-on within the camp of big tobacco, he doesn’t take sides with the neo-Puritans who blame tobacco for every medical catastrophe under the sun, and use shame-based advertising to make smokers feel like rapists who simultaneously carry the Black Death.
Altogether it’s a fun read.