Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 37-43
Jerry Jenkins wants to write a thriller.
That’s not what this book is. Nor can this series accommodate having a thriller subplot shoehorned into it. Yet every little bit Jenkins makes a kind of spastic feint in the direction of the thriller he seems to wish he were writing instead of this.
In the first book in the series, we encountered to the oddly disconnected interlude of Buck’s trip to London. He flew there after the suspicious death of his friend Dirk — a paranoid Man Who Knew Too Much stock character who had wandered into Left Behind from some unrelated suspense novel. Buck meets a policeman in a pub, witnesses a car-bombing, and flees under a false name. He travels “incognito” for nearly 12 hours before the whole subplot fizzles out and proves itself unrelated to the rest of the book.
The second volume’s thriller-ish bit is even less successful. It consists of an accidentally comical tangent during which Buck passively fears for his life while riding in a limo from the airport.
Thrillers aren’t really all that complicated, but both of those passages suggest that Jenkins has only a tenuous grasp on the formula. He gets that the hero must be in danger — that his life must be threatened by shadowy, powerful forces. But that’s about it. That these shadowy, powerful forces ought to have some reason, some pretext for wanting the hero dead doesn’t seem to occur to him.
We see this pattern repeat itself in the next little bit wherein we’re reintroduced to Earl Halliday. After arriving in Dallas and walking past the line of global princes, Rayford sees his old boss:
At the end of the row was Earl Halliday, standing stiffly and staring straight ahead. Carpathia shook hands with each of the four ambassadors in turn and ignored Halliday, who seemed to expect that. Rayford walked directly to Halliday and stuck out his hand. Halliday ignored it and spoke under his breath. “Get away from me, Steele, you scum!”
Halliday, it turns out, distrusts Rayford because he works for Nicolae Carpathia. This is odd both because Earl is the one who got Rayford that job, and because Earl is also working for Carpathia.
Earl’s initial hostility here seems to be just another chance for the authors to portray Rayford as unfairly accused, which is the closest they can come to portraying him as a good person. I suppose that works for their intended audience of American evangelical readers, since for that audience, to be unfairly accused has become the primary indicator of virtue. (Or, really, just being accused. If encountering a hostile response is an indicator of virtue, then one must be virtuous and, therefore, all accusations against one must be unfair. QED.)
You’ll recall that Halliday is here because he was enlisted by Nicolae to design and build his new airplane, the Condor 216. Earl’s role in this story thus makes even less sense than Rayford’s does. He’s a middle manager for a commercial airline, not an engineer or even a mechanic. Earl is the guy Rayford calls if he’s sick and needs someone else to cover his flights. He is, in other words, utterly unqualified for the task Nicolae conscripted him to perform.
Nicolae is the Antichrist, remember, and now controls every air force on the planet. The world’s best aviation designers, engineers and craftsmen all work for him. Boeing, Airbus and every defense contractor in the world is now — officially or de facto — a wholly-owned subsidiary of Antichrist, Inc.
With a single-page memo, Nicolae could have created “Project Condor” to design and build his plane at some remote island site. And then, if for some reason he wanted to, he could have written another one-page memo and thereby had every worker involved in that project disappeared, eliminated without a trace. I can’t imagine why he would want to write that second memo, but here we learn that this is just the sort of fate Nicole apparently intends for poor Earl Halliday.
Try to follow this:
“I’m not working for Carpathia, Rayford. I was pressed into service. I’m still a Pan-Con chief pilot at O’Hare, but when duty calls –”
“Why didn’t Carpathia tell me he was aware of you?” Rayford said. “He asked me to find somebody to fly Global Community One into New York. He didn’t know I would choose you.”
“He must have,” Earl said. “Who else would you pick?”
Ouch. It seems kind of mean for Earl to be so blunt about the fact that Rayford doesn’t have any friends. Rayford doesn’t seem to mind, or to notice, though. And he can’t really be offended — he knows very well that he doesn’t have any friends. Earl continues:
“I was asked to help design the new plane, and I thought it would be fun just to test it a little bit. Then I get asked to fly the original plane to New York. Since the request came from you, I was flattered and honored. It was only when I got on the ground and realized the plane and I were targets that I got out of New York and headed back to Chicago as fast as I could. I never got there. I got word from Carpathia’s people while I was in the air that I was needed in Dallas to brief you on this plane.”
“I’m lost,” Rayford said.
“Well, I don’t know much either,” Earl said. “But it’s clear Carpathia wanted my going to New York and winding up dead to look like your decision, not his.”
“Why would he want you dead?”
“Maybe I know too much.”
Here is where, if this were an actual thriller, Earl would go on to explain what this “too much” that he knows might be. But he has no idea and doesn’t even speculate.
Earl and Rayford somberly agree that Carpathia’s allowing Earl to fly to New York must mean the Antichrist wants him dead. It doesn’t occur to either of them (or to the authors) that Carpathia also diverted Earl from flying into the about-to-be-bombed Chicago airport. Wouldn’t that suggest he wanted Earl alive?
Jenkins layers on the ominous, thriller-ish atmosphere for the next couple of pages. “I’m a dead man,” Earl says. And, “Watch your back, Rayford.” And, “I’m not safe.” But it all fizzles out pretty quickly. Earl rigs up a narrative convenience and then just kind of wanders off, taking this latest half-hearted “thriller” interlude with him.
So to recap, Nicolae enlists the non-expertise of a woefully unqualified non-expert to oversee the design and construction of his new airplane. And now, we’re told, he inexplicably wants that man dead. Yet, even more inexplicably — despite having absolute dictatorial power and hypnotic mind control — he has not yet been able to kill him.
Why? How does any of that make sense?
Don’t try to answer that. First, because it cannot be done. There simply exists no explanation for any of this, and trying to find one in the text or to devise one and then overlay it on the text is just a waste of time. And second because asking that question whenever we encounter such utter nonsense will prevent us from turning the pages and continuing on through this book. If you’re determined to keep doing that, then the only way to do so — the only way to plow through a book as frequently nonsensical as this one — is to sometimes just laugh, shrug it off, and keep going.
The best one can manage, if one is to keep reading, is to try to make pseudo-sense of the story according to its own (inconsistent) rules. One of those rules in this series seems to be that, despite the global scope of this story, only a handful of named characters actually matter, and thus any significant deed must be performed by one of them.
Someone had to design and build this airplane. And although air forces, military contractors and aviation companies seem to exist in this world, they do not really count as possible actors. Thus the list of potential candidates for the design and construction of this plane does not include Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman. The designers and builders, instead, must be selected from among our small cast of named characters. Earl Halliday may be utterly unqualified for this task, but he’s slightly less unqualified than Steve Plank, Verna Zee, Chaim Rosenzweig, Spiky Alice or Loretta. So, for the authors, it makes perfect sense for Earl to get this job.
The constant fizzling out of these thriller subplots is a disappointment for me. I like thrillers. My favorite movie is the story of an innocent person unwittingly embroiled in an international scheme. I’ll watch that movie every time.
And the universe of Tim LaHaye’s End Times mythology seems to provide one of the key building blocks for a successful thriller. Every such thriller needs to provide a plausible answer to this question: Why doesn’t he/she just go to the police?
If you’ve got a good answer to that question, then the story is well on its way. And if you’ve got a new answer to that question, then you are well on your way to making a fortune in Hollywood.*
LaHaye’s universe offers an excellent answer to that question. The police cannot be trusted because they work for Nicolae. So does the media. There’s nowhere to turn for help or for shelter, no one to trust, no credible institutions left to assist the hero. Viewed from that angle, this universe sets the stage perfectly for a thrilling thriller.
But then in other ways, this universe is inhospitable to that kind of story because it allows no room for shadowy powerful forces. The Antichrist is in charge of everything — nothing shadowy or conspiratorial about it. And — although LaHaye and Jenkins never quite understand how much sheer power they’ve given him — the Antichrist is probably too powerful to allow any renegade fugitive to survive for long. Remember the thriller-ish portion of 1984? That didn’t last very long or work out very well for the protagonist.
In any case, at this point Jenkins is stuck. He’s more than two volumes into this series and it’s too late now to shift away from his initial, fatal choice of telling this story top-down from the point of view of characters snugly entrenched in the inner circles of the Antichrist’s power. Thrillers want to be set on the periphery — with the powerless struggling against distant powers whose faces are shrouded in shadows.
That choice is part of why Left Behind never manages to be as exciting as A Thief in the Night and Donald W. Thompson’s other no-budget Rapture movies. Thompson’s hero, Patty, wasn’t important (or self-important), and seeing this powerless woman fleeing for her life, even when pursued only by cheesy vans and a sickly helicopter, was scary in a way that watching Rayford hob-nob with Nicolae on a Learjet can never be.
In a sense, the two favorite biblical books of End Times enthusiasts offer two different templates for telling the story of beastly imperial power. Revelation was written by an exiled outcast and it was addressed to a bunch of other outcasts in the provinces. Daniel, on the other hand, borrows a motif from the story of Joseph and quickly arranges to have its hero promoted to the inner circle of Pharaoh/Nebuchadnezzar/Antichrist.** That shifts the story from the provincial periphery of the exiles to the top-down point of view of the beast’s own throne room.
In the Left Behind series, LaHaye & Jenkins opted for the top-down, Daniel/Joseph model, bringing their protagonists into Nicolae’s inner circle (even though neither has a knack for interpreting dreams). That lets Jenkins show the Antichrist at work, first-hand and up-close. But it also all-but rules out trying to tell this story as a thriller of renegades on the run.
The bigger problem with trying to insert a thriller subplot in these books, though, is the sheer fatalism of LaHaye’s End Times ideology. What has been prophesied, he believes, must happen and will happen and should happen. The heroes cannot do anything to stop the villain. And the heroes should not do anything to stop the villain.
That doesn’t just prevent this story from being a thriller, it prevents this story from offering any thrills at all.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
* The other question for which Hollywood is perpetually seeking a new answer is: “If they love each other, why can’t they just get together/get married/admit their feelings?” As with the just-go-to-the-police question, this one already has a large stable of serviceable stock answers, many of which still have plenty of life left in them. But a new answer could well be worth a fortune. “They love each other, but they can’t get married/admit their feelings because _________________.” Fill in that blank with a new answer and you can take it to the bank.
** I’m sure it exists, but I’ve not found or read any extensive discussion of the parallels between the biblical stories of Joseph and Daniel, which seem too numerous and too similar to be coincidental. John’s Apocalypse builds on that same story, adding more improvisational riffs to the same tune. Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, seven fat years, seven lean years, seven churches, seven seals, seven bowls, seven trumpets, seventy sevens, plagues, judgments, feet of clay, dreams and visions — everybody seems to be playing the same song here.