L.B.: Rule No. 4

Left Behind, pp. 89-96

The good news: Buck Williams is finally out of the men's room stall.

The bad news: He spends the next five pages in a phone booth.

Thanks to Long Story, Short Pier, I came across Kurt Vonnegut's "Eight rules for writing fiction." It's a good list, the value of which becomes clearer when applied to a book like Left Behind, in which each of these eight rules is repeatedly, egregiously violated.

LaHaye and Jenkins seem to have misconstrued Rule No. 5: "Start as close to the end as possible." Vonnegut meant the end of the story, not The End of Days.

Mainly here, though, I want to point out Rule No. 4:

"Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action."

It's rare for a sentence in LB to do either of these two things. Thus we get lots of passages like the section we're looking at today, the major theme of which is, yet again, the logistics of travel.

Buck is still trying to get to New York City. L&J seem to view this as an epic journey — they spend far more time discussing the details of this trip than they spent on the global ramifications of the death/disappearance of a billion people or on the full-scale nuclear war in which the entire Russian army was slain by divine intervention.

He eventually does get to New York — about 40 pages from now. He spends thousands of dollars on cabs and a charter jet and is able to make the trip in just under 24 hours. I realize that calamity has disrupted routine travel, but this is still a rather unimpressive time for a Chicago-to-New York trip. Under normal, less apocalyptic conditions, you can make the 750-mile drive in about half the time it takes Buck.

So why didn't Buck just drive to New York? For the money he spent, he could have bought a car, or hired one. Or he could have joined up with other NYC-bound travelers and shared the driving duties and costs. That's what friends of mine did when they got stranded in Chicago after 9/11, and they got back to Philly a lot faster, and cheaper, than Buck gets to New York.

I suppose, though, that the drive might not have been an easy one for Buck. The highways might still be clogged with driverless wrecked cars or even planes forced to make emergency landings. I can only "suppose" this, however, since L&J don't bother to show or describe any such details. If they had been interested in such things — in actually exploring or dealing with the devastating effects of the mass disappearances — they might have let Buck drive to New York and thereby have offered our first ground-level glimpse of the aftermath.

The problem with this theory, however, is that Buck does hire a driver to take him from Chicago to Waukegan, and another to take him from Easton, Pa., to New York. That's about three hours of driving in ideal conditions, and it takes Buck … about three hours. If you can take I-78 across North Jersey without incident, then travel by car is apparently not a problem.

Anyway, we're getting ahead of ourselves here. In today's section of the book, Buck doesn't get anywhere near New York. He doesn't even succeed in getting on a plane — only in playing phone tag with a charter pilot.

This exchanging of answering machine messages takes up about three pages of the book.

Three pages of phone tag. See, again, Vonnegut's Rule No. 4.

  • JRoth

    Forget the Antichrist.
    Jenkins is the Antiwriter.

  • Constantine

    I think you’re forgetting the genre in which the LB books are placed. They’re not merely Christian Apocalyptic Fiction. They are placed firmly in the Tom Clancy/international techno-thriller genre of fiction, as well. That genre requires endless discussion of logistics, technology, and problem solving (or what passes for it, here). One of the subsets of readers that L&J are trying to appeal to are those interested in endless passages about technology and logistics (cf, dismantling the airplane phone to log into Buck’s Prodigy account). L&J are betting that these readers will find it riveting to see how Buck manages to make it from Chicago to NYC… the human ramifications of seeing the devastation on the trip down I-78 isn’t as important to the readers (or L&J) as hearing about what highways they took, what cities they connected through, and what exits they took to get there. It just happens that L&J are AWFUL at writing this kind of techno-thriller action, as they’re awful about everything else.

  • Constantine

    I think you’re forgetting the genre in which the LB books are placed. They’re not merely Christian Apocalyptic Fiction. They are placed firmly in the Tom Clancy/international techno-thriller genre of fiction, as well. That genre requires endless discussion of logistics, technology, and problem solving (or what passes for it, here). One of the subsets of readers that L&J are trying to appeal to are those interested in endless passages about technology and logistics (cf, dismantling the airplane phone to log into Buck’s Prodigy account). L&J are betting that these readers will find it riveting to see how Buck manages to make it from Chicago to NYC… the human ramifications of seeing the devastation on the trip down I-78 isn’t as important to the readers (or L&J) as hearing about what highways they took, what cities they connected through, and what exits they took to get there. It just happens that L&J are AWFUL at writing this kind of techno-thriller action, as they’re awful about everything else.

  • Scott

    I tell you, when the antichrist comes, I’m funding my 666 avoiding barter co-op by shorting telecom stocks. :-)

  • Mnemosyne

    Buck hires someone to drive him from Chicago to Waukegan to try and get to New York?
    No wonder it takes him so long — he’s going the wrong way! Waukegan is about an hour north of Chicago. Where the hell is he trying to get to?

  • FHC

    Where are L&J from? If they are from the Chicago area, it could be that they are merely reflecting a local fascination with commutes. When I first moved here, I surprised that one of the first questions I would get was “where do you work?” That in itself wasn’t surprising; lots of chit-chat begins with a discussion of employment. What surprised me was that most people who asked were less interested in what I did than in How I Got There. It’s amazing how much conversational milage Chicagoans get out of surface roads versus expressways or the 135 versus the 146. It’s kinda cute, actually, even if it is a little tedious. The charm would, of course, be lost on me if those conversations took place following a world-wide catastrophe.
    But they had Buck go to Waukegan (Waukegan!?) of all places…seriously out of his way. Did Buck think for a minute that maybe he should forget New York and head towards Green Bay instead? Was it that L&J couldn’t resist a discussion of the Edens vs Sheridan Road? I doubt it. No, these people are hacks. If you’re going to write obsessively about travel, at least make it as credible and interesting as the first hour of a Chicago cocktail party. Not a high bar, folks.

  • Scott

    If they are from the Chicago area, it could be that they are merely reflecting a local fascination with commutes.
    One of them is/was a “Writer in Residence” at Moody church in Chicago.

  • Robert Green

    Fred, you are truly doing yeoman’s work here. i applaud you.
    now, though i am a sec. hum., i nonetheless pray that i find myself sitting next to someone on a long flight who is reading this book. it will make for a FANTASTIC conversation, and could lead to my arrest.

  • D. Sidhe

    Well, remember, the driver is Left Behind, and therefore doomed to Hell. So maybe he’s just toying with Buck for a bigger fare. Or just for fun. He is evil, after all.

  • Beth

    I think people are forgetting one very important point: these are not typical novels. Their primary purpose is not to inform or entertain, but to warn people of the dangers of being caught with their spiritual pants down when the rapture comes. How better to get that point across than with the sort of episodes this and other recent entries describe?
    I suspect that if you’d ask people to list their pet peeves, you’d find things like standing in line, playing phone tag, and making complicated travel arrangements would be popular choices. If, as LB suggests, these are the sort of activities that await the unraptured, salvation suddenly takes on a whole new urgency. The torments of Hell are one thing, but three pages of phone messages? That’s enough to scare anyone straight.

  • Edward Liu

    Along the lines of Beth’s comments, the first L.B. novel also shows its age by having 3 pages of phone tag between Buck and the private plane pilot. In the modern era, it would have been 3 pages just to get through the automated operator message tree (“Press 1 for accounting…”) before Buck is ultimately disconnected. Going through all the ramifications of that could have been an entire L.B. novel itself, at the rate they’re going.
    This may also be a lot to ask, but why exactly did it take 3 pages of phone tag to finally get through to a private plane pilot? I’m assuming it was just the one rather than 3 pages of Buck trying to call every private pilot in the phone book. If it was just the one, what the heck was he doing that took 3 pages before he could talk to the Greatest Investigative Journalist in the World?

  • Fledermaus

    For the money he spent, he could have bought a car, or hired one.
    Heck, with a billion plus people raptured there are probably plenty of perfectly good free ownerless cars lying around.

  • Hysteria

    Beth,
    Good point. And, to be honest, that seems to be the failing of Christian fiction–it’s written to warn, not to entertain, and in that regard it seems to pretty much do nothing rather than reinventing the wheel as it takes a few Bible verses and stories and attempts to set them in the modern era.
    On a tangent, another failing is that according to (some views of)Christianity, man can do nothing good without God. Okay, spot the writers the philosophy, but it makes for pretty bad fiction when the climax of the book is for the protagonist to realize how misbegotten his or her life is, turn to God, and then have some sort of literal deus ex machina appear to sort things out. Unless, of course, the story is built around a sin the character has committed, in which case they gotta take their medicine.

  • Hysteria

    Beth,
    Good point. And, to be honest, that seems to be the failing of Christian fiction–it’s written to warn, not to entertain, and in that regard it seems to pretty much do nothing rather than reinventing the wheel as it takes a few Bible verses and stories and attempts to set them in the modern era.
    On a tangent, another failing is that according to (some views of)Christianity, man can do nothing good without God. Okay, spot the writers the philosophy, but it makes for pretty bad fiction when the climax of the book is for the protagonist to realize how misbegotten his or her life is, turn to God, and then have some sort of literal deus ex machina appear to sort things out. Unless, of course, the story is built around a sin the character has committed, in which case they gotta take their medicine.

  • Eileen

    “If you can take I-78 across North Jersey without incident, then travel by car is apparently not a problem.”
    Well, yeah…no self-respecting Northern New Jersey driver is going to go and get themselves raptured after all, so traffic should be no worse than usual.

  • kevin

    “Well, yeah…no self-respecting Northern New Jersey driver is going to go and get themselves raptured after all, so traffic should be no worse than usual.”
    You say that toungue in cheeck, but there are a LOT of people down here (Memphis) who think that way — can’t be good Christians in New York and the like. Now, I don’t think I want to give L&J that much credit — they are most likely just crap writers with all the empahty and imagination God gave wood chips. But that little detail probably resonates with quite a few of their target audience, intentionally or not.

  • Darryl Pearce

    What’s this? Anti-”Left Behind” screed?
    What’s this world coming too?

  • J. Michael Matkin

    I’ll echo Eileen and Kevin and suggest that, being near Wheaton (the Harvard & Yale of the evangelical world), Chicago roads would probably be silly with the abandoned vehicles of the redeemed. No wonder Buck heads for Waukegan. Northeasterners, as any good red stater knows, generally consist of Catholics, Episcopalians and immigrants and would of course all be left behind to fry. Can you imagine what a New Jersey cab driver would do to the streets of gold? Sheesh.
    I haven’t read any of these books (Allah be praised), so this is fun. Kind of like a really, really (really, really, really, really) long episode of Mystery Science Theatre, except that it’s my fingers that are sore from laughing.

  • Nina

    Good grief, how on earth are you managing to read this book for the rest of us without ripping out your fingernails? You’re not just a saint, you’re a martyr for the cause. God bless you!

  • Mnemosyne

    I’ll echo Eileen and Kevin and suggest that, being near Wheaton (the Harvard & Yale of the evangelical world), Chicago roads would probably be silly with the abandoned vehicles of the redeemed.
    I’m sorry, but the students and faculty and anyone associated with Wheaton College will no longer be Raptured because the school has now allowed — gasp! — DANCING!!! SINFUL, SINFUL DANCING!
    So the I-94 will still probably be pretty crowded. ;^)

  • Eileen

    The folks in Memphis, Wheaton, etc. may have a point. I spent my formative years in Northern New Jersey and didn’t meet a single born-again evangelical fundie type till I moved to Maryland. Plenty of Catholics who thought you’d go to hell for not attending church, for eating meat on Friday, or for marrying a Protestant, but I led a very sheltered life and had no idea there were people like L&J till I was well into high school in a different state. And everyone I know from there has gotten more liberal on religious matters over the years, not less. Or they’re dead.

  • burritoboy

    J. Michael,
    He’s stuck at O’Hare, which is actually pretty far from Wheaton. O’Hare is in the north-western suburbs of Chicago, i.e. the heathen suburbs of Schaumburg and so on. The northern suburbs of Chicago are not notably fundamentalist (indeed, certain northern suburbs like Skokie are notably Jewish), so there shouldn’t be particularly bad traffic around O’Hare itself.
    I have no idea why our hero tries to go to Waukegan. As somebody else mentioned, LaHaye’s (or is it Jenkins, I forget) day job is theoretically in downtown Chicago, so why he would include this bizarre geographic error is a puzzle to me. Is he trying to get to Milwaukee (the usual destination for people passing through Waukegan)? Maybe he’s decided to spend a relaxing weekend at Lake Geneva or Wisconsin Dells. The water shows ARE fun, I have to admit.

  • Mnemosyne

    As somebody else mentioned, LaHaye’s (or is it Jenkins, I forget) day job is theoretically in downtown Chicago, so why he would include this bizarre geographic error is a puzzle to me.
    Since Fred has so kindly provided the page numbers, I may be curious enough to page through a copy at the bookstore to figure it out. I suspect it may be some of that parochialism that “Chicaga” dwellers are infamous for — they can’t tell Waukegan from Schaumburg from Joliet. It’s all suburbs, right?
    (Yes, if you haven’t guessed by now, I grew up in the North Shore.)
    Maybe he’s decided to spend a relaxing weekend at Lake Geneva or Wisconsin Dells. The water shows ARE fun, I have to admit.
    No one ever believes me when I tell them that the Wisconsin Dells is the tackiest place on Earth, far tackier than Las Vegas. Any place with not one, but two Chamber of Horrors Wax Museums can beat Vegas lying down.

  • Anarch

    The northern suburbs of Chicago are not notably fundamentalist (indeed, certain northern suburbs like Skokie are notably Jewish), so there shouldn’t be particularly bad traffic around O’Hare itself.
    The far north of Illinois, close to the Wisconsin border, is, however; or at least it’s becoming that way.

  • Sandals

    I find the obsession with details a common feature of ‘mil-porn’. These things are used in lieu of plot. Made-up example:
    Normal person: “He pointed his pistol at the criminal and shouted, ‘Hands up!’”
    Mil-porn: Raising his XR-23 pulse pistol equipped with none-lethal stunner charges, he carefully focused the aim of the 5x laser sight on the criminals torso. ‘Hands up!’, he shouted.
    How this relates to L.B. I cannot say.

  • MJ

    I suppose, though, that the drive might not have been an easy one for Buck. The highways might still be clogged with driverless wrecked cars or even planes forced to make emergency landings. I can only “suppose” this, however, since L&J don’t bother to show or describe any such details.
    …like Stephen King did in The Stand. I haven’t read that book in probably 20 years, but I still remember the descriptions of people dead in cars along the side of the road. Urgh.

  • Keith

    Describing the carnage on the highway would be a visceral and vivid way of illustrating the horror of the situation. Instead we get 15 pages of watching our protagonist much about in telecom hell. If there ever was an editor involved with this book, they should be fired. An easy fix would have been to simply write it thuswise:
    Buck made a few calls but it was futile. The lines were all down or busy and with the airport in shambles there was no way he was flying to New York. There was a chance, a slim one, that the roads might be clear enough to let him drive. He ran to the car rental kiosks by the baggage claim. The kid at the desk was a wreck, hands shaking, eyes red from crying. As he handed the keys to Buck he whispered, “Good luck” in voice that could have been made of glass.
    Buck smiled weekly back. What else could he do? What could he say that might relieve this kid’s worry and grief? Buck grabbed his bags and headed for the parking lot before he thought of anything else to say.
    After that, it’s on to the carnage on the highway, then on to New York.

  • patter

    “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.”
    Ah, but they DO — though not in relation to anything that’s going on in the book — every sentence reveals the authors’ characters and advances their agenda.

  • mcsey

    “Ah, but they DO — though not in relation to anything that’s going on in the book — every sentence reveals the authors’ characters and advances their agenda.”
    You win at this thread.

  • khughes1963

    Barbara Rossing, author of the Rapture Exposed, has written of the technothriller aspect of LaHaye and Jenkins’ Left Behind series. I urge anyone to read her book. She skillfully skewers L&J’s theology.

  • PepperjackCandy

    “every sentence reveals the authors’ characters and advances their agenda.”
    :agrees with mcsey:
    And, to hearken back to when I started reading these reviews, isn’t the reason that the lady at the airport was so blythe about all of the carnage and destruction because she’s EVIL?

  • Merlin Missy

    Pepperjack, but that would make Buck evil too, since he’s more focused on getting to New York than stopping to render aid to, well, anybody.
    And God forbid Buck be presented as Evil (misogynistic, controlling, oblivious, and a really bad writer are OK).

  • 12xu

    I actually read this book. It’s been a while, but I think Buck goes to Waukegan because there’s a small airport there with a charter pilot that will take him most of the way to his destination.
    I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly, or if I might just be making up a story that would make sense.

  • lynkatt

    But you see…if they had condensed all the telephone problems into just one or two sentences, then the book would be shorter–so short that LaHaye would only be selling one book instead of twelve. So, they are just elongating the entire story with lots of useless fluff in order to have 12 best sellers instead of 1…’cause it sez in the Bible to be fruitful and multiply…and Jesus did that fishes and loaves thing, too! Why, LeHaye is just like Jesus!

  • Mnemosyne

    I actually read this book. It’s been a while, but I think Buck goes to Waukegan because there’s a small airport there with a charter pilot that will take him most of the way to his destination.
    Ah. Yep, there is a Waukegan Airport that small jets fly in and out of.
    Thanks for saving me from having to crack open the book. ;-)

  • Keith

    Ah. Yep, there is a Waukegan Airport that small jets fly in and out of.
    Does that mean the reader is subjected to yet more line waiting, phone tag and logistics? Ugh. Hell would be living in one of these novels where all logistical concerns are innordinately highlighted.

  • Scott

    in order to have 12 best sellers instead of 1…’cause it sez in the Bible to be fruitful and multiply…and Jesus did that fishes and loaves thing, too! Why, LeHaye is just like Jesus!
    Which would make this book like a dead fish? :-)
    Ah. Yep, there is a Waukegan Airport that small jets fly in and out of.
    They should have sent him to the Champaign airport, so they could work in a blurb about Urbana conferences,

  • Scott

    in order to have 12 best sellers instead of 1…’cause it sez in the Bible to be fruitful and multiply…and Jesus did that fishes and loaves thing, too! Why, LeHaye is just like Jesus!
    Which would make this book like a dead fish? :-)
    Ah. Yep, there is a Waukegan Airport that small jets fly in and out of.
    They should have sent him to the Champaign airport, so they could work in a blurb about Urbana conferences,

  • Hekima

    LaHaye and Jenkins seem to have misconstrued Rule No. 5: “Start as close to the end as possible.” Vonnegut meant the end of the story, not The End of Days.
    Actually, the primary reason I stopped reading Left Behind is because there are so damn many books, so they hardly even started as close to the End of Days as possible. ;)
    Not much of it upset me at the time because even though I knew the authors were dead serious about their beliefs, I just found the books entertaining. Yes, I know they’re terribly preachy, but for some odd reason, they just made me glad that I’m not like that. ;p I just thought books about the end of the world — wheter or not I agreed with them — could be interesting. Alas, it took so long for the world to end that I just couldn’t stomach all of it.

  • Chicaga

    Palwaukee Airport is an odd choice – I’d imagine that they’d be littered with crashed Cessnas too. Unless the near-North ‘burbs are all saved? Meigs (still operational at the time this book was published) might have been a better choice – what with all the businessmen and all, by this author’s logic.

  • Jaedee Jaye

    Kurt Vonnegut’s “Eight rules for writing fiction.” — Seriously. Did Kurt Vonnegut write this? I know he’s been attributed falsely to the “Sunscreen” speech, but if he wrote this, I truly love this guy.