by Christopher Buckley
With near-daily reports of tobacco-company cover-ups, Buckley's novel couldn't be more timely. His protagonist, Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for the industry-sponsored Academy of Tobacco Studies, is a master of media manipulation, a glib Oprah
and Larry guest who can solemnly argue that, aside from "colds and...headaches...and bunions," 96 percent of heavy smokers "never get seriously ill."
It's that kind of talk that earns him a death threat—and a bizarre kidnapping. But when Nick escapes, only temporarily harmed, he becomes something of a hero.
Buckley's plot is silly and slender; it's his irresistible characters who keep the action rolling. Among them: Naylor's closest friends, Bobby Jay Bliss and Polly Bailey, who pick up their paychecks as flaks for guns and alcohol, respectively. The trio secretly refer to themselves as the MOD Squad—for Merchants of Death.
Bobby uses the group to test such innovative public-relations tactics as a proposal to give free handgun instructions to inner-city kids "so they'd kill fewer innocent bystanders." Polly complains of the bickering among her constituencies; most recently her breweries are holding her responsible for the Pope's endorsement of wine.
Nick himself, having decided that movies are the key to persuading the public to smoke more, is ready to pay big bucks to stars who light up—an idea that gets him to L.A., and an unforgettable meeting with an Ovitz-style power broker.
Bonfire of the Vanities? Not quite. But almost as good as a smoke. (Random, $22)