NRA: Paper jam

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 24-33

Here’s what happens in these pages: Buck details the specs of his spiffy new SUV; Rayford wallows in self-pity; Jerry Jenkins belatedly tries to claim Loretta as his character; and the authors spend five pages printing out a document.

This, again, is what follows immediately after the perhaps-nuclear devastation of New York, London, Washington, Chicago and other cities that remain unnamed because neither the authors nor their characters are the least bit curious about them.

“Do you feel like you just spent the devil’s money?” Chloe asked Buck as he carefully pulled the beautiful, new, earth-toned Range Rover out of the dealership and into traffic.

“I know I did,” Buck said. “And the Antichrist has never invested a better dollar for the cause of God.”

We’ve written here about “meta-” characters — the inadvertent glimpses we find in these books of actual human feeling hinted at between the lines of the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs hastily sketched by the authors. I wonder here if we’re not catching a glimpse of meta-Jenkins. The phenomenal success of the first two books in this series made the authors wealthy men. It’s possible here that we’re seeing Jenkins’ subconscious wrestling with that, feeling like all this newfound wealth is “the devil’s money.” Buck’s eager rationalization of his luxury purchase — which continues for two full pages — may be an expression of Jenkins’ own need to silence that subconscious uneasiness.

I have no idea what kind of car(s) Jenkins might have bought after laying up treasure via last-days hype. My guess is he did not buy a Range Rover. Based on what we read here, I would guess, rather, that he looked into buying a Range Rover, then used its ridiculous price tag to reassure himself that the opulent car he did buy could be regarded as a relatively thrifty option. (“It’s just a Lexus … it’s not like I spent $100,000 to get that Range Rover.”) But that’s just a guess.

Buck proceeds, in loving detail, to explain to his wife and to Jerry Jenkins’ conscience that this luxury SUV is an “investment” — not a luxury, but a necessity, really:

“Chloe,” Buck said carefully, “look at this rig. It has everything. It will go anywhere. It’s indestructible. It comes with a phone. It comes with a citizen’s band radio. It comes with a fire extinguisher, a survival kit, flares, you name it. It has four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, independent suspension, a CD player that plays those new two-inch jobs, electrical outlets in the dashboard that allow you to connect whatever you want to the battery.”

So for $100,000 they throw in free flares and a fire extinguisher. It’s a bargain! Particularly since Buck knows he’s going to need that fire extinguisher soon, when the first trumpet of divine wrath sounds and “hail and fire mixed with blood” are “hurled down upon the earth.”

The “high-tech” aspects of Buck’s litany sound quaintly 1997-ish now. The car-phone, I’m sure, was a key selling point for Buck — so much so that he didn’t bother thinking through how World War III and the ensuing judgments of the Great Tribulation might come to interfere with that phone’s ability to get service. (Just as he hasn’t thought about how these things might interfere with his ability to get fuel for this gas-guzzling car.) And that reference to those mini-CDs had me feeling nostalgic for the brief heyday of Laser discs.

This was all paid for with “the devil’s money” — which Buck explains refers to a super-special credit card provided only to “senior level” Global Community executives such as Buck. “Those of us at senior levels have a special code built into ours,” Buck says. “They’re unlimited.”

Chloe worries that spending $100,000 on a new car with his expense account might raise flags with the accountants at Global Community headquarters. Two points there:

1. Global Community is a worldwide tyrannical operation run by the Antichrist, the embodiment of all evil. I would think, then, that senior level executives are expected to abuse their expense accounts for all sorts of personal luxury items. That’s what those super-special, no-limit unobtanium corporate credit cards are for. If anything, the bean-counters at HQ might flag Buck’s account for a suspicious lack of charges for hookers and blow.

2. Buck has such a senior-level executive card because he is a senior-level executive. But apart from the perks that come with this job, both he and the authors seem to have forgotten he has any job at all. I’m sure his boss, the Antichrist, couldn’t care less that Buck just bought himself a new car shortly after his old car was destroyed along with the rest of mid-town Manhattan. But I’m guessing that Nicolae will care a great deal about the fact that the executive in charge of Global Community Weekly is blithely ignoring his journalistic duties, failing even to check in with the office following the outbreak of World War III.

We briefly check back in with Rayford here for a half-page interlude with him and his new ethnic friend:

“You’re gonna be ferrying a lot of VIPs back to Iraq,” Hernandez said. “But that’s nothing new for you, is it?”

“Nope. I’m afraid it’s lost its luster by now.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I envy you.”

Rayford Steele has two standard responses in all of his interactions with others. If what they say strikes him as insufficiently deferential or insufficiently impressed by him, then Rayford goes into a moody, self-righteous sulk, indignant at that person’s alleged disrespect. If what the person says is deferential and they are impressed by him, then Rayford goes into a moody, self-pitying sulk, indignant at that person’s failure to appreciate how very, very difficult it is to be Rayford Steele.

Chico’s “I envy you” comment may actually only reflect that his own job at the moment involves evading insurgent aircraft while seeking a safe place to land during a perhaps-nuclear conflict, and that Rayford’s assignment of ferrying VIPs in relative safety seems preferable. But Rayford interprets that remark as deference and admiration, and thus responds accordingly:

Rayford was stunned to silence. Here he was, what Bruce Barnes referred to as a tribulation saint, a believer in Christ during the most horrifying period in human history, serving Antichrist himself against his own will and certainly at the peril of his wife, his daughter, her husband, and himself. And yet he was envied.

“Don’t envy me, Captain Hernandez. Whatever you do, don’t envy me.”

This is why Rayford is so much fun at parties, and why Hattie Durham had such a delightful time during her years pseudo-dating him.

Meanwhile, back at the Range Rover:

As Buck neared the church, he noticed yards full of people. They stared at the sky and listened to radios and TVs that blared from inside their houses. …

Yes, with the eye of a trained journalist, Buck notes all those people out there, desperate to learn what’s happening, desperate for some way to find out the details of who, what, when, where, how and why. If only there were someone whose job it was to bring them that news. But Buck can’t worry about such things now, he’s got to get to the church.

Buck was surprised to see one lone car in the parking lot at New Hope. It belonged to Loretta, Bruce’s assistant.

“I don’t look forward to this,” Chloe said.

I don’t look forward to this either. We first met Loretta early in the first book of this series, learning little more than her name and that she’d lost her whole family in the disappearances. But she was the first character in these books to have an appropriate and recognizably human response to the horror and trauma of The Event. She alone was shell-shocked and shattered, devastated by the loss of the children she loved and by all the children of the world.

And thus, from that moment on, Loretta became my favorite character. I developed a proprietary fondness for her. Let Jenkins keep his cardboard sociopath heroes — Loretta is ours.

And so, while Jenkins ignored her after that, my imagination kept Loretta very busy indeed. While Bruce spent two whole books neglecting his congregation locked in his study with his “inner circle,” I imagined Loretta taking charge and ministering to the needs of this desperate community. Somebody had to be doing that, and Jenkins made it clear that it wasn’t going to be Bruce, so I assigned the task to the only other character there with a name. Thus while Bruce was diverting church funds to pay for his personal Tribulation-shelter, I imagined Loretta busily helping the congregation prepare as best they could for the calamities that Bruce’s prophecies said were soon to arrive.

So while Jenkins hasn’t bothered with Loretta for the past 900 pages, I’ve been fleshing out her character in my mind, supplying her with a richer backstory and setting her to work on the common-sense agenda that our alleged heroes have utterly neglected up to this point.  Yet now, two whole books later, Jenkins thinks he still has the right to come along and tell us what he thinks Loretta is like.

Too late, buddy. I already know. She’s sardonic, capable and resourceful and she’s played here by the late Kathryn Joosten. And I doubt I’ll be able to tolerate Jenkins’ attempts to tell me any different.

They found the woman, now nearly 70, sitting stiffly in the outer office staring at the television. Two balled-up tissues rested in her lap, and she riffed a third in her bony fingers. Her reading glasses rode low on her nose, and she peered over the top of them at the television. She did not seem to look Buck and Chloe’s way as they entered, but it soon became clear she knew they were there. From the inner office, Buck heard a computer printer producing page after page after page.

So far this is acceptable. Loretta can have reading glasses. She wears them, I imagine, attached to a lanyard looped around her neck. The lanyard was made by one of her nieces at Bible camp. Loretta never takes it off.

Loretta had been a southern belle in her day. Now she sat red-eyed and sniffling, fingers working that tissue as if creating some piece of art. Buck glanced up to see a helicopter view of the bombed-out Northwest Community Hospital. “People been callin’,” Loretta said. “I don’t know what to tell ’em. He couldn’t survive that, could he? Pastor Bruce, I mean. He couldn’t still be alive, now, could he? Did y’all see him?”

No. No, no, no, no, no. This is just wrong.

I can accommodate the possibility that Loretta might be southern. We could tolerably make her like one of those formidable aunts in Faulkner or Walker Percy. She could be a “steel magnolia,” even. But not a wilting southern belle. No. And definitely not with this community-theater-Glass-Menagerie accent. This is unacceptable.

About the only thing Jenkins gets right in this scene is that again Loretta is the only one smart enough to be sad at sad news. She weeps when Chloe confirms that Bruce is dead, hugging Chloe in her grief. Buck finds this off-putting:

He would grieve in his own way and his own time, but for now he didn’t want to dwell on the tragedy.

He seems to resent Loretta’s grief in the same way he resents that helicopter news crew on the TV, risking their lives to report the breaking news story from the hospital. Buck would report on that in his own way and his own time, but for now he didn’t want to dwell on it.

“What’re you working on in the office, ma’am?” he said.

And thus begins one of the longest and most thoroughly detailed set-pieces thus far in the Left Behind series. For the next five pages we are treated to the painstaking account of Loretta’s efforts to print out all the files on Bruce’s laptop computer.

I’m neither joking nor exaggerating. Five pages explaining how Loretta used a “Print BB*.*” command to send all the files to the printer, or how church tech-guy “Donny Moore” set up the office laser printer with “old boxes of continuous-feed computer paper.”

Bruce’s lap-top computer, it seems, had contained more than 5,000 pages — single-spaced — of his sermon notes and the results of his “research” on the prophecies in Daniel and Revelation.

Buck, Chloe and this southern-belle impostor Loretta discuss what a valuable resource it is to have all of this material, but as usual they don’t say anything at all about the actual substance of what those 5,000 pages says.

That’s a shame, because what we have here is a miracle akin to the feeding of the multitude. The book of Daniel is 14 pages long. The book of Revelation is 16 pages long. Bruce’s “literal” reading of those 30 pages produces 5,000 pages of commentary. Hallelujah, it’s a miracle!

It’s also not clear why having 5,000 printed pages is in any way more useful than having all of that text conveniently stored in searchable form on Bruce’s computer, but Buck views this doorstop of a manuscript as “a gold mine.”

“The best we can do for this little flock that has lost its shepherd is to get those pages reproduced. I don’t know what this place will do for a pastor or a teacher, but in the meantime, people need access to what Bruce has written. … This is a treasure that everyone can use.”

And then, suddenly, we catch another glimpse of what is surely meta-Jenkins briefly surfacing from the author’s subconscious:

Chloe spoke up. “Buck, shouldn’t you try to edit it or shape it into some sort of book form first?”

“I’ll take a look at it, Chloe, but there’s a certain beauty in simply reproducing it in the form it’s in. This was Bruce off-the-cuff, in the middle of his study, writing to fellow believers, writing to friends and loved ones, writing to himself.”

The very best writing, you see, isn’t “edited” and shouldn’t be “shaped … into some sort of book form.” It’s just reproduced as is.

That’s either a revealing Freudian slip or else it’s Jenkins explicitly mocking his audience. I can’t tell which.

The vital thing, to Buck, is that they find some way of distributing Bruce’s writing to everyone at New Hope Village Church. Here, in descending order of convenience, are three simple ways of doing that:

1. Create a website for church members and post to it all of Bruce’s notes in an interactive, cross-indexed, searchable format. (Nicolae was written in 1997, so the Web is well-established by this point.)

2. Copy all of Bruce’s files onto CDs — maybe even onto those “two-inch jobs” — and give everyone in the church a copy.

3. A 2,500-page printed copy of Bruce’s notes would be the least convenient form, but if they’re intent on getting everyone in the church a copy of such a thing, at least they won’t have to pay for paper, ink or printing. Buck Williams, remember, is the publisher of Global Community Weekly — this universe’s version of Newsweek. Buck owns and operates printing presses at dozens of industrial printing centers all over the country, so he could easily arrange to have this printed up fast and cheap.

Do I even need to tell you that our heroes don’t do any of those things? No, instead they go with Plan D — sending Miss Loretta-Mae Sue to Kinko’s:

“I think Loretta ought to take all those pages to a quick-print shop and get them started. We need a thousand copies of all that stuff, printed on two sides and bound simply.”

“That’ll cost a fortune,” Loretta said.

“Don’t worry about that now,” Buck said. “I can’t think of a better investment.”

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