Left Behind, pp. 361-364
Toward the end of Chapter 19, we were treated to the thrilling spectacle of Buck Williams leaving a message for Hattie Durham at the Pan-Con Club (Wilkommen!). Chapter 20 begins with the equally exciting account of that message being received at the other end.
Here’s the opening lines of Chapter 20 as they appear in the book:
Rayford and Chloe Steele waited until 1:30 in the afternoon, then decided to head for their hotel. On their way out of the Pan-Con Club, Rayford stopped to leave a message for Hattie, in case she came in. “We just got another message for her,” the girl at the counter said. “A secretary for a Cameron Williams said Mr. Williams would catch up with her here if she would call him when she got in.”
“When did that message come?” Rayford asked.
“Just after one.”
“Maybe we’ll wait a few more minutes.”
Rayford and Chloe were sitting near the entrance when Hattie rushed in. …
And here is how the opening of Chapter 20 would have read had this book been even hastily edited:
Rayford and Chloe were sitting near the entrance to the Pan-Con Club when Hattie rushed in. …
This illustrates one of the reasons why Left Behind: The Movie is so much better than the book.* Don’t misunderstand — the movie is not good, it’s just less horrible than the novel, partly because it’s not as long. Movies are produced on a budget, and that financial economy requires a corresponding dramatic economy that the novelist is not compelled to respect.
Here on the page, Jerry Jenkins storyboards a scene for us: Buck gets out of a cab, walks across the sidewalk and into the building, through the lobby, into the elevator, down the hall, through the newsroom, and into Stanton Bailey’s office. So let’s see, that’s about seven sets that need to be built and decorated, and a couple of dozen extras that need to be hired. A movie budget wouldn’t allow that, so in the film you just start the scene right there in Bailey’s office instead of wasting all that money and the audience’s time. A movie budget also wouldn’t allow you to hire a cast of thousands to play parts like Pan-Con Counter Girl No. 2 — parts that offer nothing of value to actor or audience.
Rayford and Hattie were sitting near the entrance when Hattie rushed in. Rayford smiled at her, but she immediately seemed to slow, as if she had just happened to run into them. “Oh, hi,” she said, showing her identification at the counter and taking her message. Rayford let her play her game. He deserved it.
So Rayford assumes Hattie was in a breathless rush because she was so eager to see him. Readers know different. We know she’s in a hurry because she’s running late thanks to Buck leaving her in a curbside cab for half an hour. Rayford’s misinterpretation of this could have been an interesting bit of character development — a reminder that the born-again Rayford did not instantaneously become a saint, that overcoming his vanity and his preening narcissism will be a struggle and a process.
But that’s not what the authors are doing here — they seem to share Rayford’s take on this scene, portraying it as reliable. They share his impression of Hattie as a silly girl — a girl, and therefore by definition silly — who shouldn’t be taken seriously. They have her babble for a bit about meeting Nicolae (“Did you know he’s going to be named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive?”) and how busy and important Buck Williams is, while Rayford responds with smirking condescension. “You don’t say,” he says. “Quite a morning for you, wasn’t it?”
Chloe, meanwhile, just stands there. You’d think she’d have something to say, since meeting one’s father’s pseudo-mistress for the first time, I would imagine, would be a significant event. But at least this way we can imagine that Rayford’s mortifying behavior has rendered her speechless and thus, for at least a little while longer, we can continue to like her as a character.
Buck is already at the airport, making his way to the Pan-Con Club, but since he’s not quite there yet the authors still have time to squeeze in one more phone call. It’s the Pan-Con trifecta: Buck leaves the message, Hattie receives it, and then she returns his call. If there were a Cliff Notes summary of Left Behind it wouldn’t need to include a plot summary, just the LUDs from Buck’s and Rayford’s phones.
Chapter 20 presents a structural challenge for the authors. They have, so far, capably alternated between the points of view of their dual protagonists — Rayford scene, Buck scene, Rayford scene, Buck scene, etc. They indicate these changes of scene and perspective with the serviceable visual cue of a chunk of white space and a horizontal line.
The tricky thing here is that our heroes come together for the first time, meeting and shaking hands. That’s both a Rayford scene and a Buck scene, and readers will need to see it from both characters’ points of view. Jenkins gamely sticks with the alternating POV approach, but the result is a chapter in which we get one of these
on every page. Here for example, Rayford and Hattie are talking:
“And how is Mr. Williams?”
“Very nice, but very busy. I’d better call him. Excuse me.”
Buck was on an escalator inside the terminal when his phone rang. “Well, hello yourself,” Hattie said.
“I am so sorry, Miss Durham.”
“Oh, please,” she said. “Anybody who leaves me in midtown Manhattan in an expensive cab can call me by my first name. I insist.”
“And I insist on paying for that cab.”
Points for Buck for apologizing and offering to pay for the cab. In contrast with Rayford, he almost seems like a stand-up guy. Points for Hattie, too, for this:
“You’re a nice guy, but it’s obvious we’re not kindred spirits. Thanks for seeing me and especially for introducing me to Mr. Carpathia.”
Over the 363 pages we’ve read so far, I’ve come to think of Hattie as two different entities. There’s Hattie the author’s puppet, misused and mistreated by them and by their arrogant Mary Sue surrogates. But there’s also Hattie the person — the character struggling against the puppet strings, trying to assert a bit of dignity and humanity.
This second Hattie is an accident, an unintended presence in the story. I find this presence reassuring. Jenkins is a careless hack and he seems to have put more effort into preventing the character of Hattie from coming to life than into making her seem human. And yet there she is. When a piece of fiction or drama works, the characters seem to take on a life of their own. Action begets character which in turn begets action, and dialogue seems to write itself. Yet even here, in this impossible story in which characters are forced to behave arbitrarily in the service of an incoherent, external plot imposed on them from above, even here there are signs of life. If the authors neglect, or obstruct, the act of creation, the readers will supply it, almost involuntarily. Story puts flesh on bones, even in a bad story.
Buck asks Hattie, again, if she’ll introduce him to Rayford when he arrives. She plays along with the idea that they hadn’t already agreed to this and turns back to ask Rayford if he’d agree to meet the reporter.
So Hattie’s cupping her hand over the receiver to put Buck on hold is actually a scene change. We’re back in Rayford’s point of view which means, of course, that we’ll be treated to more of his inappropriate musings:
Rayford was wondering if Hattie had a date with Buck Williams that evening. The right thing to do would be to invite her to dinner at his and Chloe’s hotel. Now she was waving him over to the pay phone.
“The right thing to do.”
Now you know. If you’re ever trying to simultaneously brush-off and proselytize your pseudo-mistress and you find she’s moving on with her life and dating other men, then the right thing to do would be to invite her to dinner. At your hotel. With your daughter.
“Rayford, Buck Williams wants to meet you. He’s doing a story and wants to interview you. … I suppose about flying or the disappearances. …”
“Tell him sure, I’ll see him. In fact, why don’t you ask him to join the three of us for dinner tonight, if you’re free.” Hattie stared at Rayford as if she had been tricked into something. “Come on, Hattie. You and I will talk this afternoon, then we’ll all get together for dinner at six at the Carlisle.”
She turned back to the phone and told Buck. “Where are you now?” she asked. She paused. “You’re not!” Hattie peeked around the corner, laughed and waved. Covering the mouthpiece, she turned to Rayford. “That’s him right there on the portable phone!”
“Well, why don’t you both hang up and you can make the introductions,” Rayford said.
I’ll give credit where it’s due — Jenkins handles the POV almost elegantly there, switching to the one-sided phone conversation as Rayford would hear it. The larger structural difficulty — choosing whose perspective to portray for a conversation between the two protagonists — is also handily postponed. Almost as soon as they meet, Buck and Rayford part ways. The lovestruck Buck Williams wanders off with Chloe to do their best impression of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise (with the terminal at JFK substituting for Vienna), and Rayford takes Hattie aside to present the strange psychospiritual speech he’s been rehearsing in his head for days.
Those scenes are every bit as wincingly uncomfortable as they sound, so be warned: Next week’s installment of LB Friday may be unpleasant.
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* Since I’ve mentioned the movie, and since we’ve got just five chapters left in the first volume of the series, this seems like a good point to mention my plans for the future of LB Fridays. After Book 1, I thought we’d deal with the movie for at least a few weeks as a kind of palate-cleanser — a slice of Velveeta before we begin sampling from the swill of Book 2, Tribulation Force. There may also be a slight hiatus in there somewhere while we take Left Behind! The Musical! on tour. (No, not really. Probably not really.)