Curmudgeonalia
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July 20, 2008

Thank You For Smoking

Christopher Buckley – ISBN – 9780812976526

This novel is a hoot . . . especially for those who enjoy witty, intelligent writing, absent gore with only peripheral references to sex.

The plot revolves around Washington lobbyists for lethal vices: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The principal protagonist and his two friends meet regularly for lunch, which meetings are for commiseration and brainstorming. They identify themselves as the MOD squad (Merchants of Death), and admit that what they do is morally obtuse; still, do it well and take peculiar pride in their achievements.

The serpingenous plot carries the reader thru numerous, often humorous, uncommonly well crafted and usually deceitful activities which the principals use to hawk and defend their products, which activities are not occasionally used against them. All can identify the disingenuity of the tobacco lobbyists who, to this day, deny the relationship of smoking to disease. Nick Naylor, chief lobbyist for the “Academy of Tobacco Studies” (as it is cunningly named), is the main character of the story. He is brilliant at what he does, and parries the most severe challenges with astute, devastatingly distracting arguments when confronted with facts.

For instance, a senator from Vermont has proposed a law to require the placement of a skull and cross-bones on cigarette packages. At a scheduled committee hearing the senator sears him with health facts from thousands of studies about the deleterious effects of tobacco. Nick simply turns the tables by commenting that many of the “so-called facts” are just that. In riposte he emphasizes that there is no disagreement that cholesterol is unchallengeably awful, and that Vermont cheddar cheeses are loaded with it. Unprepared, the senator is crushed by the deviation from his planned attack and is immediately put on the defensive.

Nick is thereafter treated like royalty by the MOD squad and the captains of the industries they represent, while most of congress, the media and HHS are apoplectic. (HSS, you’ll remember, is Health and Human Services, though the MODs refer to it Helpless, Hopeless and Stupid.)

In that context the author comments that “Nick graciously thanked Chairman [and the Senator] Finisterre for the opportunity to present his views before such a distinguished committee. How proud the founders would have been of the [committee’s] senators: over two thousand bounced checks between them, a seducer of underage Senate pages, three DUIs, one income-tax evader, a wife beater whose only defense was that she’d beat him up first, and a case of plagiarism, from, of all sources, a campaign speech of Benito Mussolini. . . . [He then] paused in his recitation long enough to reflect that it’s a sorry state when seducers of teenagers and Mussolini-quoters feel morally superior to [him].” This construction is exemplary of the writing skills of Buckley, who sent me to the dictionary several times over unfamiliar words (due in some measure to the fact that Chris is the son of William F.)

In a variety of situationally relevant asides, Buckley touches upon interesting ancient and contemporary historic factoids. King James, he notes, “was offended by Indians” brought from the Virginia colonies to demonstrate the “newfangled thing called smoking.” Offended, that is, until he reflected upon the tax revenues generated by the product. How very different from today, eh? I have no idea if these factoids are true, and no interest in pursuing them, but they are at least clever—and, I’d wager, accurate.

Eventually Naylor is kidnapped by “tobacco terrorists,” plastered with nicotine patches and left to die—which he nearly did. After a horrendous ordeal and recovery he is both hero and marked man, which Buckley blends into the final set-piece involving sophisticated revenge and, ultimately, Nick’s redemption.

The plot is a little zany, but always dazzling, and the “killer” ending is wonderfully wrought.

Posted by respeto at July 20, 2008 11:44 AM