Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book 206: Thank You For Smoking



" 'Pleasure,' Nick croaked, though what he was experiencing was far from pleasure. The audience glared hatefully at him. So this is how the Nazis felt on the opening day at the Nuremberg trials. And Nick was unable to avail himself of their defense. No, it fell to him to declare with a straight face that ze Fuehrer had never invaded Poland. Vere are ze data?

Dates read: February 1-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

There's a look people get when I tell them I'm a lobbyist. It's partly surprise, that lobbyists are a thing that exist outside of DC. And then the next question I get is who I lobby for. The answer is not Save The Whales. When I name some of our clients, as often as not I get some joke back about corporate evil. Which is neither original or entirely fair, but we live in late-stage capitalism and we all need our little jokes to get by.

But as a lobbyist, the sharp satire of Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking resonated perfectly for me. Many of you will have seen the (very good) movie version, and it's one of those movies that I actually like so much that I was worried about reading the book! It turns out they're very similar, telling the story of lead tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor and his constant fight to defend the industry. Naylor appears on Larry King, on Oprah, before Congress, and battles for his job while his boss tries to replace him with his pretty young protegee.

While the movie gets a lot of milage out of the divorced Nick's young son, he's very much a background character in the book. Instead, the focus is on Nick's quest to make smoking cool again by getting the movie studios to put it on screen, and a bizarre kidnapping in which Nick is abducted and covered in nicotine patches. When he's not busy flying to Hollywood and being abducted, Nick is having two different flings (one with his corporate rival, one with a reporter) and hanging out with his closest (read: only) friends, the lobbyists for the alcohol industry and the firearm industry, who are constantly squabbling about whose product kills more people.

Satire, like most comedy, can be very tricky to nail with the right tone, and I'd read a Buckley book a couple years ago that I didn't think quite landed. But I always believe in giving an author I was unimpressed with a second chance, because everyone has some variance in the quality of their output and some books you just don't read at the right time. Happily, I found this one excellent. Even though this book was written in the early 90s, there haven't been enough significant changes in the political process or corporate communications that the humor has lost its relevance or edge.

On the flip side, it is a satire, so character development (usually big for me as a reader) was pretty minimal and the plot was of course exaggerated. If smoking/tobacco is something you take seriously, this book will likely be more irritating than amusing. But if you've seen and liked the movie, or you work in corporate communications/government relations, there's a lot to enjoy here.

One year ago, I was reading: In Defense of Food (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: La Belle Sauvage

Three years ago, I was reading: The Queen of the Night

Four years ago, I was reading: Primitive Mythology

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