“Smoke” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. Smoke (1995)  
Mysterious Press, 454 pages, $21.95  hardcover  
ISBN 0-89296-543-7

Freddie Noon is a twice-convicted thief in New York City.  So when he’s caught by Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker stealing electronic equipment from their research facility, he decides that becoming their experimental subject is better than the alternative:  a third, and very long, stay in the slammer.  Freddie takes both of the doctors’ experimental formulas instead of just one and promptly becomes invisible—which, of course, makes it easy for him to escape.  

This send-up of the tobacco industry is high comedy.  The research that renders Freddie invisible is funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute in its continuing efforts “to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.”  And since an invisible man would make a wonderful spy, the race is soon underway by tobacco-company flunkies to find Freddie Noon.

As in most satire, a lot of the humor here derives from caricature. There’s Mordon Leethe, the aging tobacco-company lawyer who’s spent most of his life trying not to think about the implications of his work; Loomis and Heimhocker, who avoid thinking about the ethical implications of their research as long as the funding keeps rolling in;  Barney Beuler, the crooked NYPD cop who manages to stay a step or two ahead of Internal Affairs while looking after his own interests;  Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the lecherous and double-crossing fence who gets his comeuppance, several times, from an invisible Freddie; and Jack Fullerton the Fourth, the tobacco empire CEO who’s dying of emphysema but manages to light up a cigarette despite the oxygen tube in his nose.   Finally, there’s Jack Fullerton’s successor, Merrill Fullerton, who has a brilliant plan to keep himself in business:  “‘We’ve spent the last forty years,’ he said, ‘trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race, and we’ve failed.  We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!’”

Once the reader grants the impossible premise—that a person could be made invisible—everything else follows logically and humorously.  Loomis and Heimhocker, in their research involving skin pigmentation, have developed two separate formulas.  They’ve experimented by giving each formula to one of their cats, and two translucent cats now wander around their building.   The researchers know they need to do human testing, but they balk at using the formulas on themselves;  after all, “how could a translucent scientist hope to be taken seriously in the medical journals?”

But what raises Smoke above the level of a mere comic romp is the developing relationship between the two main characters, Freddie and his girlfriend, Peg Briscoe.   Peg freaks out—understandably—the first night that the invisible Freddie crawls into bed next to her.  And it’s not easy living with an invisible man—just think about it.  You can never be sure where he is and whether he’s watching  you.  (Peg can see Freddie only when he’s fully clothed and wearing pink Playtex gloves and one of the masks—Freddie prefers Bart Simpson—Peg gets for him at a costume supplier.)  And you can’t do simple things that normal people do like go out to dinner together.  But when Peg is in danger, Freddie, who could easily just disappear, puts himself at risk to rescue her.  As Peg explains to Freddie’s mother (and to the lurking Freddie) at book’s end,  “‘It took me a while to adjust, but it’s gonna be okay now.  He came and helped me when I was in trouble, and he didn’t have to, and I realize we need each other, we’ve got to be together.’”

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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