WARNING: HAZARDOUS TO THE TOBACCO LOBBY
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
By Christopher Buckley
Random House x 272pp x $22
In the recurring nightmare that makes reporters wake up with the cold sweats, you believe a source who has just tipped you off to the Big Story, and then, after you run with it--whoops. Well, the nightmare came true for poor Nick Naylor.
A Washington television reporter, Naylor is on a run-of-the-mill assignment covering the President's trip to a Marine base when he overhears Secret Service agents fretting about Rover choking on a piece of meat. As Naylor happens to know, "Rover" is the President's code name. When somebody pronounces Rover dead, Naylor grimly tells the nation the news, sending the stock market plunging 180 points before the White House reassures everyone that the President is fine. The late Rover, it turns out, was the base commandant's dog.
Nick Naylor is author Christopher Buckley's fictional answer to the question: What kind of person would take on the Sisyphean task of doing public relations for the tobacco industry? Naylor, a smooth, shamed, soul-sapped sell-out, that's who--the star of Buckley's fiendishly funny send-up of Big Tobacco and Washington spin control, Thank You for Smoking.
Nick's Rover fiasco, it turns out, was precisely the reason the head of the "Academy of Tobacco Studies," J.J. Hollister ("a man born with tar in his blood") hired him to be the ATS spokesperson. Hollister reassured the tobacco industry's wheezy old generals: "That boy is going to work his behind off putting this thing behind him....That boy is going to be one angry young man."
Quite a judge of character, that J.J. Sure enough, that embarrassment is the reason Naylor can muster the guts, while seated between a hairless, 15-year-old, former Camel-smoking cancer sufferer and a do-good bureaucrat from the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, to tell Oprah that the feds wanted the kid to die. Why? "'So that their budgets'--he spat out the distasteful word--'will go up. This is nothing less than trafficking in human misery and you, sir, ought to be ashamed of yourself.'"
It also explains why Naylor can huddle merrily with the chief spokespeople for the alcohol industry and the gun lobby at weekly "Merchant of Death" luncheons. Sequestered at back tables in low-profile restaurants, Naylor and his "Mod Squad" cronies trade black humor and try out "sound bites de-emphasizing the lethality of their products."
The work poses some interesting challenges. One of Naylor's chums is charged with positioning the massacre of a Texas church choir as evidence of why gun control is dangerous. How so? A parishioner in the front row insists she would have had a clear shot had she been packing her piece. Naylor's other pal, representing the Moderation Council (whose slogan is "strength through unity at a time of volumetric decline") ponders whether she should try to outmaneuver Diane Sawyer on Prime Time Live to be first to hug a child with fetal alcohol syndrome on camera.
These characters earn their pay. So does Naylor, whom Buckley manages to make likable despite his cynicism, which is thicker than the three-pack-a-day smoke that swirls around him.
Buckley, the editor of Forbes fyi, is a Washington insider who knows this turf. His previous, well-received satire was The White House Mess. Even though some of his one-liners read as though they were written for Murphy Brown to deliver and then wait for the laugh track, most of his humor is well-grounded in ironies that have tickled tobacco-industry watchers for years, beginning with a certain personal problem that some real-life tobacco lobbyists and employees have trouble controlling. For example, the receptionist at ATS, after answering the phone cheerfully, "began to cough. No dainty little throat-clearer, either, but a deep pulmonary bulldozer. 'Academy of--harrg--Tobacco--kuhh--Studies.' Nick wondered if having a receptionist who couldn't get through 'hello' without a bronchospasm was a plus."
The plot is a farcical romp through the second-biggest event in Nick's life: His kidnapping, allegedly by antismoking advocates who cover his body in enough stop-smoking nicotine patches to kill him. He manages to escape, however, and is found in his boxer shorts, stumbling and wired, by the police. Nick becomes an overnight celebrity and a hero to his benefactors when he miraculously escapes death--in part because of his high tolerance for nicotine. For that, he earns a big salary increase, the laser-beam lust of a sexy co-worker, and the cushy assignment of working out bribes with a big-name Hollywood producer to put cigarettes in the celluloid hands of hot young actors. But it also raises the antennae of the FBI, who wonder: Isn't this the second time Nick Naylor has captured the spotlight through unusual circumstances?
An ace satirist, Buckley will have you roaring, but the feeling fades to an edgy sadness. Flip on the nightly news lately and there are those tobacco executives mouthing the very assertions you laughed at when they came from Buckley's characters--that the smoking debate is not about recruiting children to smoke, it's about an assault on American civil liberties; that cigarettes aren't addictive, they're just a pleasurable habit, like sweets or coffee. However broad the comedy in Thank You for Smoking becomes, it often feels as though only the names have been changed. This book is also a broadside at the purse-lipped politically correct. But its cut-the-bull humor stands a better chance of making their points than product labeling or self-righteous rhetoric ever will.
The only thing funnier to be said this year about smoking could well be whatever reaction the tobacco industry will have to this book. Imagine the Tobacco Institute press release denouncing it--with Nick Naylor's logic-suspending indignation propelling every line. A possible correlation between reading satire and blindness, perhaps? Better yet, make it wrinkles. Laugh lines could be a big problem here.JOAN O'C. HAMILTON