Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 74-89
I do not like Buck Williams. If he were a real person whom I met in real life I would not want to spend time with him. Ditto for Rayford Steele.
The heroes of a story do not have to be likable. I have liked many stories that featured protagonists I did not like. But what sets Buck and Rayford apart from all those other unlikable heroes in otherwise likable stories is that the protagonists here in Left Behind are unintentionally unlikable.
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins want us to like Buck and Rayford. They expect us to like them — to admire them, to find them good, funny and fun, clever and charming. And yet Buck and Rayford do not come across as any of those things.
Stranger still is that Buck and Rayford are most unlikable due to the very things the authors most expect will make us like them. That’s particularly clear in the pages we’re revisiting today. Jenkins seems to be working hard here to show us Buck Williams: Cool Guy. But what we find instead is Buck Williams: Big Jerk.
The context here is one in which Buck ought to have our sympathy. His wife is missing and in jeopardy and he’s racing to find her. That’s a situation in which I’m inclined to give a character every benefit of the doubt. Buck is facing an emergency, and the context of an emergency can make some otherwise jerk-like behavior seem excusable or even commendable. We can forgive a person in a life-and-death emergency for being rude, impatient or testy — that just shows they’re focused on the proper priority with an appropriate urgency.
But the underlying problem in this chapter — and all throughout this series — is that Buck responds to his own emergency without acknowledging that everyone around him is also facing the very same emergency and the very same stakes.
We can forgive a character who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving children, but we cannot forgive a character who steals that bread from someone else’s starving children.
For six pages, Buck races through traffic and that’s all the other vehicles and motorists are to him, traffic — objects and obstacles in his way. Buck’s aggressive disregard for those people is excused as a necessary expediency because his loved one may be in danger after his city has been destroyed. It does not occur to either Buck or Jenkins that everyone else on the road is in the exact same predicament. The sequence is thus presented as though everyone else were just commuting or running errands while Buck and Buck alone has an urgent need to get somewhere.
This disregard for everyone else becomes even sharper when Buck finally skids to a stop amidst “a busy force of emergency workers.”
Jenkins typed those words: “busy,” “emergency” and “workers.” And yet the meaning of those words do not seem to have registered with him. He presents them, and Buck reacts to them, as just another set of obstacles, just more annoying others getting in Buck’s way.
Jenkins even tells us that the scene includes “squad cars, ambulances, fire trucks” — so this is a crowd of first responders who are “busy” responding when Buck nearly runs them down. Yet Buck and Jenkins regard them as government bureaucrats.
This creates two unnecessary problems, both of which make Buck more difficult to like. First, it means he spends several pages interfering with these emergency workers who have to stop busily helping people in a war zone in order to deal with him. But secondly it also means that it doesn’t occur to Buck to enlist their help.
And this crew would have been very helpful. Buck knows Chloe was in a crash, so she may need the help of firefighters and EMTs. But he doesn’t know where the crash happened — so a police officer with a patrol-car radio linked to other patrol cars in the area seems like just exactly what Chloe needs right now.
Yet Buck doesn’t ask for their help. He doesn’t tell them that he’s trying to find his wife, that she’s been in a crash and may be injured. He doesn’t describe Chloe or her SUV or ask any of these workers if they’ve seen or heard of anything to match that description. All Buck thinks about, instead, is how to get past and away from these bureaucrats, these people in his way.
“I’m Cameron Williams, publisher of Global Community Weekly,” he tells them. “I report directly to the potentate.”
A young, slender cop pulled Buck’s real ID wallet from the hands of the woman officer. “Let me just have a look at this,” he said with sarcasm. “If you really report to Nicolae Carpathia, you’d have level 2-A clearance, and I don’t see — oops, I guess I do see level 2-A security clearance here.”
The three officers huddled to peer at the unusual identification card. “You know, carrying phony 2-A security clearance is punishable by death –”
“Yes, I do.”
The reader has to do most of the work in this series to construct the world of Nicolae Carpathia’s one-world dictatorship. Little scraps of information like this have to be collected carefully throughout these books in order to piece together the picture of life under the Antichrist. This is a significant detail, revealing that Nicolae is running a tyrannical police state of the sort in which impersonating an officer can be grounds for execution.
Informing us of that doesn’t seem to have been the purpose of including this detail here, though. The effect Jenkins is trying for seems to be, instead, to show us that Buck is cool. The police officers are awed by his security clearance, after all, so that must mean he is awesome.
“I borrowed this car from a friend named Zee,” Buck tells the officers. “You can check that for sure before you have it junked.”
“You can’t leave this car here!”
“What am I gonna do with it?” Buck said. “It’s worthless, it’s got a flat tire, and there’s no way we’re gonna find help for that tonight.”
“Or for the next two weeks, most likely,” one of the cops said.
So one of the world’s major cities can be rebuilt after a nuclear attack in about two weeks, but a car with a flat tire is beyond repair.
For all Buck knows, Verna has a spare tire in the trunk, but he decides to set out on foot without even checking. One gets the feeling that he’d have abandoned Verna’s car even if it had just run out of gas — “It’s worthless, the tank is empty!”
That “two weeks” bit highlights the weirdness of this entire scene, none of which seems like it plays out in the context of a nuclear war zone. The cop’s next question to Buck is: “So, where were you goin’ in such an all-fired hurry?” Set aside the oddness of a Chicago police officer talking like someone at an old-timey Wild West show, and just try to imagine anyone asking such a question makes any sense in the immediate aftermath of the obliteration of Chicago by perhaps-nuclear bombs. “What’s your hurry?” just isn’t a question most people would think to ask in a war zone.
Buck tells the officer he has to get to the Drake hotel, and he seems to mean it, even though this is the one place in all of the Chicago region that he knows Chloe can’t be.
“Where have you been, pal? Don’t you listen to the news? Most of Michigan Avenue is toast.”
“Including The Drake?”
“I don’t know about that, but it can’t be in too good a shape by now.”
“If I walk up over that rise and get onto Michigan Avenue on foot, am I gonna die of radiation poisoning?”
“Civil Defense guys tell us there’s no fallout readings. That means this must have been done by the militia, trying to spare as much human life as possible. Anyway, if those bombs had been nuclear, the radiation would have traveled a lot farther than this already.”
“True enough,” Buck said. “Am I free to go?”
Here are more details to try to fit into our picture of the world. Chicago police officers are still armed, so they must really be Global Community forces, since everyone else has been dis-armed by Nicolae’s OWG (except for militia groups, which have their own ultra-modern air force and nuclear arsenal, apparently). Chicago and/or the Global Community also operates something called “Civil Defense,” the function of which is unclear in a one-world government. I am having a hard time making all of these pieces fit together.
I’m also having a hard time figuring out Buck’s plan here. Chloe was just leaving Chicago on a highway when she crashed, so why is Buck headed all the way into downtown Chicago? And why on foot? How are he and Chloe going to get back to Mount Prospect? Or what if Chloe needs to be rushed to a hospital (if any non-nuked hospitals still stand)? Is he just assuming that his beloved Range Rover will still be able to drive?
Buck doesn’t think about any of that as he trudges inexplicably toward the hotel. He’s thinking about Verna. No, he’s not thinking, “It was so nice of Verna to lend me her car and I feel just awful that I won’t be able to return it to her.” He’s thinking, rather, that perhaps he should not have offered to help her in the first place.
It suddenly hit Buck that he had taken a huge risk. It wouldn’t be long before Verna Zee learned that he had, at least at one time, been a full-fledged member of New Hope Village Church. He had been so careful about not taking a leadership role there, not speaking in public, not being known to very many people. Now one of his own employees — and a long-standing enemy at that — would have knowledge that could ruin him, even cost him his life.
Buck’s cautious secrecy about his church is strange when we contrast it with Rayford’s missionary zeal toward his co-workers. Rayford’s outspoken proselytizing shows that Buck’s furtiveness is not necessary — Nicolae doesn’t seem to care that Rayford is a born-again Christian. It also underscores the selfishness of Buck’s attitude. He believes that Verna and Alice and the others will be damned to Hell for eternity unless he warns them not to take the Mark of the Beast, but he’s not willing to warn them if that means risking his “level 2-A clearance” and all the perks that go with it.
Worrying that Verna has learned all his secrets, Buck dials Loretta’s house and asks to speak to Verna.
Loretta said, “I’m just tellin’ her my story, as I assumed you wanted me to.”
Buck was silent. Finally, he said, “Put her on, would you, Loretta?”
This could have been a nice character moment — a chance for some gentle musing on Buck’s reluctance to see Verna converted and to have to then welcome her as a sister. But it’s not presented that way. It’s presented, instead, as an attempt to build suspense … Oh no! What if Verna learns the Jesus secret?!
Once he’s talking to Verna on the phone, Buck briefly behaves decently — offering to replace her car with an upgrade and asking if there’s anything she needs from the old one before he abandons it.
“Is there anything you need out of it?”
“Nothing I can think of. There is a hairbrush I really like in the glove box.”
“That does seem a little trivial in light of everything.”
“No documents, personal belongings, hidden money, anything like that?”
“No. Just do what you gotta do. It would be nice if I didn’t get in trouble for this.”
“I’ll leave word with the authorities that when they get around to it they can tow this car to any junkyard and trade whatever the yard gives them for it for the towing fee.”
A hair brush isn’t a personal belonging?
Buck’s plan for abandoning the car recalls the earlier scene in which he elaborately arranges to have his rental car returned to the airport — less than an hour after he witnessed the destruction of the airport by a perhaps-nuclear bomb. Once again Buck seems serenely certain that a nuclear assault won’t have any bearing on the routine operation of towing companies or salvage yards.
Before he hangs up, Verna mentions that Loretta has “got some really strange ideas.” Buck pockets the phone, worrying that Loretta will tell Verna all about the Antichrist and the Tribulation Force and Bruce’s charts and all the rest. He thinks to himself:
“Either she becomes a believer, or I’m dead.”
This is why I don’t like Buck Williams. Even when the subject is somebody else’s eternal soul, he still thinks it’s all about him.