Harper Perennial, 1994, 272 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-097662-4
After discovering the silliness of Christopher Buckley in Little Green Men, it didn’t take me a long time to bring back home other examples of his work. Alas, as if often the case when picking up authors in mid-career, going back to earlier works can be disappointing, as we regress to a more unpolished style and less-controlled plotting. No, I didn’t go nuts for Thank You For Smoking nearly as much as Little Green Men. But don’t let that stop you from reading the book.
Christopher Buckley, novelist, is really a social satirist. Before tackling the world of UFO conspiracies in Little Green Men, his Thank You For Smoking took careful aim at the special-interest community. Our protagonist and narrator, Nick Taylor, is a spokesman for the tobacco industry. The job has its small annoyances (like being likened to Nazis and various creatures of the underworld) but it pays the bills, represents a constant challenge and allows Nick to travel around the country and attend public events where participants hiss at him. It’s, all things considered, a good life. That is, until Nick starts making too many waves and someone, somewhere wants him dead through an ironic execution.
Suddenly, Nick doesn’t know who to trust. Even as he’s enjoying his highest media profile in years, even as the leaders of Big Tobacco start noticing his efforts, even as he sleeps with just about every available female character, his enemies start to accumulate. Are they anti-smokers or pro-smokers with twisted motives? What about Nick’s colleagues in the special-interest community? Are those NRA spokespersons jealous of Nick’s sudden celebrity? Unless… what if the Tumbleweed Man, ex-industry icon now living off oxygen bottles, has decided to take his final revenge?
General points of comparison with Little Green Men abound. Both novels revolve around Washington, as Buckley demonstrates his inside knowledge of how the machinery of influence really works. Both novels feature a protagonist who comes to reconsider everything he believes in, even if it results in him losing everything he holds dear. Both novels do believable jobs of creating their own brand of reality slight off-kilter from our own, while remaining credible. Both can be read in a flash.
The main difference is that Thank You For Smoking is somewhat less funny than Little Green Men. The latter novel had the good sense to go for the jugular and be hysterically silly when it needed to be. No so here, as things are carefully kept from going over the edge of reality. It’s off-beat but not zany. Whereas Little Green Men was funny, Thank You For Smoking is merely amusing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being merely amusing. In fact, some readers are more likely to prefer a novel that stays within the bounds of a certain recognizable reality. It’s not as if I disliked Thank You For Smoking (well, aside from the impression that the narrator was a slut for sleeping with every female he could lay his hands on) as much as I thought it was a let-down from Buckley’s later novel.
Certainly, Thank You For Smoking is well-worth reading for light entertainment. (The progressive transformation of the protagonist in someone we can cheer for is remarkable in itself.) There’s plenty of satiric content for anyone even remotely familiar with special-interest groups, and even if the ending isn’t completely successful (what is with chapter 29, anyway?), it’s not as if the rest of the novel isn’t pure fun. As for me, well, I’m not done with Buckley’s other novels yet.