Nick Naylor is an antihero for the 1990’s. His successes come in defending the rights of smokers and presenting the tobacco industry in a positive light. He is a master of misdirection, foiling government experts in debates by creating convincing streams of illogic, and a public relations genius, committing his lobbying group to an expensive antismoking advertising campaign that he designs to be ineffective and convincing filmmakers to portray characters lighting up. Naylor sleeps with everyone, including his assistant, a muckraking reporter, and an underling gunning for his job, each with unfortunate results for his career.
After scoring major public relations coups with appearances on popular talk shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, Naylor is kidnapped and almost killed. Naturally, he turns the event to his advantage, drawing sympathy for smokers. The kidnapping steps up both interior and exterior battles at the Academy of Tobacco Studies, where Nick works. Nick’s newfound popularity makes him a larger target for political infighting at the academy, and the public relations benefits of the kidnapping lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to believe that he faked the event as a publicity stunt.
Buckley’s novel is hilariously overdrawn, with characters rising to heights of amorality. Naylor, for example, frequently lunches with two friends; one works on behalf of liquor companies and the other defends the right to bear arms. Each is as unscrupulous as Naylor in creating positive messages. They recognize their roles, calling themselves the Merchants of Death and putting Naylor down when, in their words, he begins to perceive himself as “unholier than thou.” Naylor calls on them as the only people he can trust to help him in his battles with the FBI and his colleagues at the academy, and they solve all of Nick’s problems with a brilliant scheme capitalizing on his opponents’ own foibles.