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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes : THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, By Christopher Buckley (Random House: $22; 272 pp.)

July 31, 1994|Larry Wallberg | Larry Wallberg is a free-lance writer

The ability to turn readers into would-be stand-up comedians is one of the things that distinguishes a successful comic novel. Humor screams to be shared.

Which is not to say that Christopher Buckley's newest work, "Thank You for Smoking," is merely mouth-pleasing, a collection of quirky jokes and smirky turns-of-phrase. It's got some neat visuals and nifty dialogue, too. In crazy scene after crazy scene, the author urges you to turn on the film projector in your head, to watch and listen to his characters as they act out his satiric script.

Take, for example, the luncheon meetings of the "MOD Squad"--that's MOD as in "Merchants of Death." Our hero, Nick Naylor, socializes and commiserates on a regular basis with two other shills of shame, Bobby Jay Bliss and Polly Bailey, representatives of, respectively, the gun and booze lobbies. The three frequently spend their mealtime hours together trying to one-down each other, playing at being "unholier-than-thou."

At a place called Bert's, they sit in the smoking section, around an ersatz fire, and take turns complaining about society's do-gooders who want to blame them for berserk postal workers on shooting sprees, the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome among offspring of women who drink "a gallon of vodka every day in the third trimester," and the imminent cancer death of the Tumbleweeds Man, "for over twenty years the very symbol of American's smoking manhood in the saddle."

Naylor's adventures lead him to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, where he discusses the phallic-nosed advertising icon, Old Joe Camel, with fellow guests--the head of the National Organization of Mothers Against Smoking (NOMAS), the executive director of the National Teachers Assn. in Washington, the deputy director of the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention and "the Cancer Kid," a stricken high school senior who has told Oprah that he "no longer thinks smoking is cool."

Somehow, Naylor--who until that telecast was in danger of losing his job to a good-looking protegee of the man he works for--manages to turn in a matchless performance defending smoking by attacking its attackers. And that's the moment you've been waiting for, right there at long last in Chapter 5, when Buckley's manic-movie plot is finally set fully into motion. Before the tale burns itself out, Naylor's little odyssey-ette will have brought him into contact with Hollywood "hypesters," a North Carolina Tobacco squire, a Margaret Thatcher clone, would-be killers, a sex-wielding newspaperwoman and, yes, Larry King ("Author's Note: Some real people appear here under their own names, but this is fiction.")

Unfortunately, that's also the moment, right there in Chapter 5, when you'll realize how thin the novel really is--as a novel. Its cinematic strength is its literary downfall; you're reading a novelization. The wilder the episodes become, the less involved the reader does. This is no page-turner that will keep you lighting up into the wee hours. Instead, you'll find Buckley joking more now and enjoying it less. He throws his two-dimensional characters into outrageous screwball-screenplay situations, and they're funny, funny, funny. But they never really come alive, never really step out of the book and into our hearts. Because of that, they fail to fully engage our interest; also because of that, the book ultimately becomes nothing more than a collection of humorous plot contrivances and verbal pyrotechnics.

But, wow, is it going to make a terrific and hilarious Hollywood flick if the right creative people get hold of it and flesh those characters out with some high-priced actors. (Wallberg's Tip: Michael Keaton as Nick, John Goodman as Bobby Jay, Madeleine Stowe as Polly, Howard Stern as Larry King.) Who today still reads the ain't-I-clever writers of yesterday, the Max Shulmans, the Leonard Wibberleys or the Thorne Smiths? But sit for half an hour with an episode of "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," or watch "The Mouse That Roared," or check out "Topper" in any of its incarnations, and you'll find yourself thinking you're dealing with a classic--a minor one, granted, but a classic nonetheless.

"Thank You for Smoking" is a very enjoyable read that's going to make one hell of a film. Watch for it soon. But remember: No smoking in the theater.

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