As chief spokesman for the Academy for Tobacco Studies, Nick Naylor must try to convince the world that tobacco is not damaging to your health. He tries to make Big Tobacco look good by getting his employer to fund ads trying to convince kids not to smoke, but he tells the ad agency to make sure the ads aren’t too effective. Nick is very, very good at his job. When asked to appear on Oprah with anti-tobacco activists and a kid with cancer, he manages to actually sound like a heroic supporter of liberty and truth. When asked how he could do this kind of work, he answers, “it pays the mortgage.”
Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel is outrageous from beginning to end. There’s almost no tactic that Nick and his cohorts won’t stoop to. If you’ve ever wondered if those talking heads on Larry King and the like can be trusted, this book will do nothing to inspire confidence. Here’s a taste of Nick’s on-air conversation with Larry King:
[Larry] “I used to smoke a lot and I had three heart attacks and bypass surgery. My doctor told me to I could either go on smoking or die.”
[Nick] “I wouldn’t be comfortable discussing your medical history, Larry. I don’t know what the incidence of heart disease is in the King family. I’m certainly happy that you’re feeling better. But if I could steer us a little away from the anecdotal and toward the more scientific, the fact is that ninety-six percent of smokers never get seriously ill.”
“Isn’t that a little hard to believe?”
“They get colds and, you know, headaches and the normal sort of things, bunions”—Bunions?—“but they don’t get seriously ill.”
“Where does that figure come from?”
“For the National Institutes of Health, right here in Bethesda, Maryland.” Let the NIH deny it tomorrow; tomorrow people would be on to the next thing—Bosnia, tax increases, Sharon Stone’s new movie, Patti Davis’s latest novel about what a bitch her mother was. As long as he was at it, he threw in: “And from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.”
“That is news.” Larry shrugged. Larry was basically too polite to accuse his guests of being shameless liars. It was probably why Ross Perot liked him so much.
For me, the book was at its best—and funniest—in scenes like this, ones that you can just about believe. I got a lot of laughs out of the scenes when Nick and his friends from the tobacco and gun lobbies (they call themselves the MOD Squad—for Merchants of Death) discuss PR tactics. As the book goes on, the story gets crazier and crazier. There’s a car chase, a kidnapping, a forced overdose on nicotine patches, and more, but the wildest incidents never quite touch these moments when you get to see just how easy it can be to manipulate the media.
Aaron Eckhart played Nick in the 2005 movie version of this book, which is every bit as good as the novel. In fact, I must admit that I’m not sure how well I would have liked this book had I not been so clearly able to picture Eckhart’s charming smile. He captured the part beautifully and made it possible for me to see how people could be won over by someone who is so clearly a complete sleaze. If you like outrageous satire, I recommend them both.
This book was my June read for my giveaway from my bookshelf. Clarissa was the lucky person who suggested that I read this book, and so she’ll be getting my copy. Congrats Clarissa! For your chance to win a book from my shelf, leave a comment on my TBR list with the name of the listed book that you’d like. I’ll be choosing at least one winner each month. (Here’s how the giveaway works.)