14 March 2009

"Thank You for Smoking" by Christopher Buckley

Thank You for Smoking
Christopher Buckley
Date of Publication: 17 May 1994
Cover Price: $22.00
272 pages

As you may recall, one of my 2009 reading goals is to get to some of the books that have been the basis for some of my favorite films. Thank You for Smoking was adapted and directed by Jason Reitman in 2004, and quickly became one of my top twenty favorite films of all time thanks largely to the sardonic humor and Aaron Eckhart's irresistibly charming portrayal of lead character Nick Naylor. It's always difficult coming to a written work after seeing the film version of it, because of two things.

First, the notion of being cheated out of being able to visualize characters and other elements for yourself because you see the actors and sets from the film. For me, this is not much of a problem because I rarely visualize anything I read. To be honest, it helps me to read the character of Nick and picture Eckhart. Secondly, and this actually does apply to me, I find it difficult not to think of the film version while reading. I find myself thinking in terms of, "That was arranged in a different order," "They truncated that character/plot" and "Oh, so that's what that was about."

For those unfamiliar with the premise, it is the 1990s and Nick Naylor is the chief spokesman for the tobacco industry. We follow his efforts at maneuvering and finagaling the truth to his employers' advantage against the backdrop of the industry's political death throes. He largely justifies doing what he does using what is characterized as the "yuppie Nuremberg defense:" to pay the mortgage.

Buckley deftly paints a portrait of the D.C. climate of the '90s, complete with fictionalized versions of many real figures. At one point, Nick makes small talk about wondering who will succeed Morton Kondracke on The McLaughlin Group, noting, "Boy...the things we care about in Washington...." The problem is that Buckley has left alone the history up through the Nixon administration, but has re-written is successors. Naylor, as a news correspondent, mistakenly reported the death of a President Broadbent, for which he was drummed out of journalism; John Hinckley is still locked up, though President Reagan is never named--rather, a President Finisterre was assassinated (it is never connected to Hinckley), and his nephew is fighting for his political life by going after tobacco.

By moving back and forth between reality and fiction, Buckley treats us to an insider's view of our system and then, without warning, takes us out of the story entirely. Curiously, it's the invocation of the fictitious characters that ruin the effect. Given that the story never actually involves these people, I cannot fathom why it matters that Nick's journalistic faux pas involved a President Broadbent; it could just as believably been President Ford, or Carter.

In any event, the story is greatly entertaining from start to finish. As a political junkie, I find it titillating; as someone with a bent sense of humor, I laughed aloud countless times. I would recommend that anyone interested in this story see the film first, though. The reason I say this is that the original novel--with numerous different plot points, including an entirely alternate conclusion--costs the film some of its luster. I think, were I to have read the novel first, I would have never thought so highly of the Reitman adaptation.

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