Continuing my course of reading Christopher Buckley novels, I decided to try Thank You For Smoking, the novel that made him a star.
Compared with the two previous novels I read, written more recently, Thank You For Smoking is strong stuff. All his novels (at least the ones I’ve read) have concerned a man with some residual decency, doing a job he knows to be wrong. They’re novels of equivocation. TYFS is in the same line, but the basic decency of the hero, Nick Naylor, spokesman for the tobacco lobby, is more submerged than in the other books. Nick feels some guilt, but he genuinely enjoys the challenge of twisting facts to confound anti-smoking activists, who don’t look much better than he does in this story. They are portrayed as humorless neo-Puritans. Nick gets a kick out of tweaking their noses.
When the novel starts, Nick’s hold on his well-paying job is getting shaky. A new boss has taken over, and he’s keen to kick Nick out so he can replace him with his sexy blonde assistant. But then Nick appears on Oprah. It’s an ambush interview, and he finds himself face to face with a bald kid with cancer. But Nick has great instincts, and he manages to turn the tables, making himself – and the tobacco industry – look persecuted and heroic. That earns Nick the support of “The Colonel,” the venerable head of the firm. Nick’s future will involve being kidnapped, spending time in the hospital, having an affair with the aforementioned sexy blonde, and going to jail. It’s quite a ride, but a kind of moral closure is achieved in the end.
Thank You For Smoking is a bravura comic novel. There are few actual, quotable gags, but absurd juxtapositions and situations provide frequent laughs. I was troubled by a plot element that seemed to equate guns and alcohol with cigarettes, though I think that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.
But I found it all kind of rich for my blood. I’m going to take a break from Buckley for a while. Nevertheless I recommend Thank You For Smoking, with cautions for language, adult situations, and tasteless moments.