Monday, 22 September 2014

Thank You for Smoking

Thank You for Smoking
Thank You for Smoking
Christopher Buckley
"Nick Naylor is just a regular guy trying to earn a living. In these neo-puritanical times, it's a challenge to defend the rights of smokers and a privilege to promote their liberty. Sure, it hurts a little when you're compared to Nazi war criminals, but Nick's just doing what it takes to pay the mortgage and put his son through school. As chief propagandist for the tobacco industry he can handle the insults from the antismoking zealots, but death threats are a different matter. Someone wants to prove just how hazardous smoking can be - and if Nick isn't careful, he's going to be stubbed out."

   This is a book I’ve wanted to read for some time now. I’m a massive fan of Jason Reitman’s film adaptation, starring Aaron Eckhart and knew that if the film’s style was lifted faithfully from the novel that I’d be in for a hell of a read. I wasn’t disappointed.

   Thank You for Smoking is the story of Nick Naylor, America’s most hated man. Nick works as a lobbyist for a huge tobacco research corporation, where he spends his days defending cigarette companies on TV while trying to come up with ways of getting smokes into more customer’s hands.

   Nick is a fantastic character. He never presented as either a two dimensional villain or a shining white knight in the middle of an evil company. Buckley manages to write him as sympathetic but deeply flawed. Through promoting and selling cigarettes he knows he’s responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, but he has a family to provide for, a mortgage to pay. He doesn’t approach his job without regrets but is never so cut up about his involvement with tobacco that he gives it up.
   Buckley makes the character work by making Naylor himself aware of this duplicity. Through his narration we see that even he doesn’t know where he sits on this issue. Part of him knows he’s a scumbag but part of him really thinks he’s doing the right thing.

   The standout scenes for me are the diner scenes featuring the MOD squad, a group made up of Nick and his two friends, both lobbyists for Alcohol and Firearms respectively, the groups name, an acronym for Merchants of Death.
    These scenes show of Buckley’s skills with dialogue as the group help each other prep for upcoming conventions and TV appearances. The way they speak to each other, joking about the latest fatality figures for their respective industries and coming up with deliberately offensive ad campaigns is absolutely hilarious and makes for some of the most memorable conversations in the novel.

   The satire in the novel is spot on. Buckley presents the tobacco industry as ruthless and soulless but refrains from ever telling you outright that their simply evil. Some of the books contents, including Nick being made the head of an anti-smoking ad campaign that his boss stresses “Shouldn’t be too convincing”, to the higher ups rejoicing at the news that smoking is on the rise in China meaning a huge spike in customers, could make for some uncomfortable reading if they weren’t backed up by ridiculous (but almost certainly realistic) ideas like negotiating a tie-in cigarette brand to go with a big upcoming sci-fi movie and workshopping ideas on how to make the skull and crossbones, that the government have said must be put on all packets, appealing to housewives.
   The result is a vision of the Tobacco industry as heartless but idiotic which is probably pretty close to the truth.

   This is a book that could have so easily gone wrong, in the hands of a lesser writer it almost certainly would have, but Buckley manages to balance the satire in a way that never feels too preachy but also never paints the cigarette industry as heroes. There are a few plot threads that don’t run quite as well as others, but overall it’s an intelligent and very funny novel. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to finally get around to reading it and I can’t wait to read Buckley’s other books. 

Christopher Buckley
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