This is a very snappy, enjoyable read, with lots of tasty one liners. An example: “Strange how in America, in the 1950s, at the height of its industrial and imperial power, men drank double-martinis for lunch. Now, in its decline, they drank fizzy water. Somewhere something had gone terribly wrong.”
Or, “His whole life was meetings. Did they have this many meetings in the Middle Ages? In Ancient Rome and Greece? No wonder their civilisations died out, they probably figured decadence and the Visigoths were preferable to more meetings.”
Essentially, it is an extended satire with libertarian leanings on the cynicism of modern American media and communications culture. The story concerns the lead spokesman for the tobacco lobby and his emotionally stunted attempts to deal with the moral ambivalence of his job and motivations.
It is great fun and Buckley has a whale of a time making the point, again and again, that everyone has their price and that, as the lead character says, we all have to pay the mortgage. I think the band Dead Kennedys, in the 1980s, had a song called ‘We are all prostitutes’. Same basic point. Everyone in this book is out for what they can get.
But this is an artful and clever book, though it sometimes reads like a film screenplay. It was made into a very successful film, so maybe that was always in the author’s mind.
I chose to buy it after reading in one of those ‘my week’ type columns in the Financial Times that Buckley was a great writer. I think it was written by Malcolm Rifkind, of all people. That is the sort of incongruity Buckley himself would love.