NRA: The running man

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 92-96

Buck Williams wants something.

That’s rare in these books. Part of what makes our heroes so hard to like — apart from their acting like jerks most of the time — is that for huge chunks of this series they don’t seem to want anything. That makes it difficult for readers to understand them. And it makes it impossible for us to cheer them on, hoping that they succeed in getting what they want.

Those listless sections just blandly unfold with events happening to Buck and Rayford, or happening near them, or on TV screens in front of them. But the protagonists don’t do anything themselves because there’s nothing they want.

Here, Buck wants something. He wants to find Chloe.

That gives this chapter a momentum and a life that’s usually lacking in these books. It’s the one big thing that Jerry Jenkins gets right in this chapter that allows readers to hurdle past all the other things here, large and small, that he gets horribly wrong.

Just consider the basic skeleton of this scene. We have a man wandering through the still-burning ruins of a former city, trying to find his wife. He does not know where she is or how badly she may be injured. He doesn’t know what he will do if he finds her, but he has to find her.

That “has to” makes a difference between reading this chapter and slogging through the four that came before it.

This basic outline works. Dozens of different short stories could be written based on this basic premise. It could be the basis for an action movie or for an art film. It could be the setting for an action-packed first-person-shooter video game (just add zombies) or for a Myst-like puzzle game (just add fragments of a cryptic diary).

For once we have a scene in which the basic dramatic situation is actually dramatic. For once we can — at least briefly — understand Buck Williams.

This is still a Left Behind novel, of course, and so Jenkins sets about sabotaging this scenario at every turn. And even if the underlying generic scenario is sound, we don’t enter into it generically. We already know too much else about Buck and about the absurd nonradioactive-nuclear sorta-destruction of Chicago to be fully caught up in the scene. But Buck finally wants something, and so readers can finally want something too.

The initial set-up for this was pretty solid. Chloe was driving Buck’s fancy new Range Rover, racing to escape Chicago before the bombs fell. Buck was on the phone with her when suddenly:

He heard an explosion, tires squealing, a scream, and then silence.

That’s good stuff. If this were a TV show, that would work as the cliffhanger end of part 1 of a big sweeps-week two-parter.

But that was all the way back on page 63, and Jenkins sapped all the urgency out of that set-up by giving us several more scenes in which Buck drives out to Loretta’s house, or calls his dad in Arizona, or does just about anything other than racing to the rescue.

The final scene in Chapter 4 drained a bit more of the tension out of this scenario as the cell phone he borrowed from Verna Zee rings:

Buck shouted “Hello! Chloe?” before he had even hit the receive button. His fingers were shaking so badly he nearly dropped the phone. He pushed the button and shouted, “Chloe?”

“No, Cameron, it’s Verna. But I just heard from the office that Chloe tried to reach you there.”

“Did somebody give her the number of this phone?”

“No. They didn’t know you had my phone.”

“I’m trying to call her now, Verna. The line is busy.”

“Keep trying, Cameron. She didn’t say where she was or how she was, but at least you know she’s alive.”

Finding out that Chloe is still alive lowers the stakes here. Jenkins doesn’t seem to realize that, as he’s more focused on who has which phone number. Throughout this chapter, he seems to have the impression that the details of phone-tag are more exciting than the details — largely omitted — of a man trying to make his way through a just-nuked city.

So Chapter 5 begins with all the excitement of Buck repeatedly pressing redial.

Suddenly his phone rang again.


“No, sorry, Cameron, it’s Verna again.”

“Verna, please! I’m trying to reach Chloe!”

Look again at that previous snippet of dialogue from the end of Chapter 4 and notice how kind Verna is being to Buck. Then keep in mind that Buck is, at this very moment, speaking on Verna’s cell phone, which she generously loaned him and which is now his only hope of finding Chloe since he’s just also wrecked Verna’s car, which she also generously loaned him.

Even here, as she’s calling to provide Buck with the very thing he desperately needs — a sense of where Chloe is — he still reflexively treats her like her very existence is a burden to him.

I can’t figure out what we’re supposed to make of this. If we look at Verna’s words and actions in these two chapters in isolation, then it seems like Jenkins is presenting the redemption of Verna Zee (redemption in the literary, not the theological sense). But if we judge by Buck’s reaction to her, then it seems we’re still supposed to view her as some kind of sensibly shod villain.

Verna says Chloe left a message with “somebody in our office.” (Didn’t everyone leave the office? Just let it go.) Chloe said she crashed “the other way on Lake Shore Drive.”

That’s not a very precise location, and Jenkins has Verna and Buck discuss the various possible meanings of “the other way” for half a page. But now at least Buck has a general sense of where Chloe might be. He has a reason to run and somewhere to run to, so he starts running.

Buck was in reasonably good shape for a man in his early thirties, but now his joints ached and his lungs pleaded for air as he sprinted to Chicago Avenue and headed east toward the lake.

Nothing heightens suspense like constant reminders from the author that he used to live in Chicago and knows his way around the city.

When he finally got to the Drive, he found it empty. He knew it was barricaded from the north at the Michigan Avenue exit. It had to have been blocked at the far south end too. Gasping, he hurdled the guardrail, jogged to the middle, heard the clicking of meaningless traffic lights, and raced across to the other side.

Yes, the streets are undamaged by the nuclear assault. The traffic lights are still functioning, and Jenkins’ post-nuclear Chicago basically seems to look just like pre-nuclear Chicago, but without all the cars and people. Just let it go.

He jogged south, knowing Chloe was alive but not knowing what he might find. The biggest question now, assuming Chloe didn’t have some life-threatening injury, was whether those print-outs of Bruce’s personal commentaries — or worse, the computer itself — might have fallen into the wrong hands. Surely, parts of that narrative were quite clear about Bruce’s belief that Nicolae Carpathia was the Antichrist.

I’m pretty sure that Nicolae is quite clear about Nicolae’s belief that he is the Antichrist, so I’m not sure what the worry is that he might end up reading Bruce’s notes. If anything, Nicolae would likely find Bruce’s manuscript reassuring, confirming that the “Tribulation Force” had no plans to disrupt his plans.

But Buck doesn’t just seem worried that Nicolae might get a hold of Bruce’s transcripts. He also seems worried that Bruce’s notes might wind up leaked to the public. The members of the Tribulation Force are very strange evangelists — people who regard their gospel as a closely guarded secret that must be kept from the unsaved world at all costs.

Buck keeps running, hitting redial over and over as he goes.

Finally, Chloe answered her phone.

Having not planned what to say, Buck found himself majoring on the majors. “Are you all right? Are you hurt? Where are you?” He hadn’t told her he loved her or that he was scared to death about her or that he was glad she was alive. He would assume she knew that until he could tell her later.

She sounded weak.

Chloe is badly hurt and still trapped in the wrecked SUV. She thinks he’s probably only a mile or so away.

This is where most versions of this story would have the searcher say something like, “You just hold on, I’ll be there soon,” before pushing on with their last ounce of strength, sprinting the final mile to the wrecked car. We would learn the details of the crash and what befell the victim upon his arrival.

But since we’re in the version of this story involving Buck Williams and told by Jerry Jenkins, Buck stops running and focuses on interviewing Chloe over the telephone.

This allows Jenkins to describe the same scene for us twice within the span of five pages. “Buck, the Range Rover seems to be stuck between a tree and a concrete abutment,” Chloe says on the phone here on page 97. “The Range Rover was lodged between the trunk and lower branches of a large tree and the concrete abutment,” we read later, when Buck arrives at the scene on page 102.

“I was doing about 60,” she said, “when I thought I saw an exit ramp. I took it, and that’s when I heard the bomb go off.”

“The bomb?”

“Yes, Buck, surely you know a bomb exploded in Chicago.”

One bomb? Buck thought. Maybe it was merciful she was out for all the bombs that followed.

And mercifully, Buck doesn’t have to tell her about all the bombs that followed while she was unconscious, because they apparently did so little damage to Chicago that she’ll never notice the difference.

Unfortunately, the bombs striking California at this point in our story don’t seem quite so ineffectual.

While Buck has been busily running across the pristine landscape of post-nuclear Chicago, Rayford Steele has been flying away from San Francisco. Jenkins inserted a brief, one-page Rayford scene smack in the middle of Buck’s run toward Chloe.

That kind of interruption can sometimes help to heighten the tension of a suspenseful scene, a kind of head-feint distraction that makes readers all the more anxious to get back to the first scene and find out what happens next.

Here, though, Jenkins is cutting away from the suspense of a traffic accident with a brief interruption off-handedly noting the death of a million people. Once we’re reminded of how high the stakes are in San Francisco, it’s hard to retain much concern for whatever might be at stake back on Lake Shore Drive.

Any remaining doubts Rayford Steele had about the incredible and instant power that Nicolae Carpathia wielded were eradicated a few minutes after the Condor 216 left the ground at San Francisco International. Through the privately bugged intercom he heard one of Carpathia’s aides ask, “Now, sir, on San Francisco?”

“Trigger,” came the whispered reply.

… [Rayford] and McCullum looked at each other as their earphones came alive with startled cries from the control tower. “Mayday! Mayday! We’re being attacked from the air!” The concussions knocked out communications, but Rayford knew the bombs themselves would easily take out that whole tower, not to mention the rest of the airport and who knew what portion of the surrounding area.

So everyone Rayford spoke to during his recent stop at that airport is now dead. He knew they would be killed, but he did nothing to warn them or to try in any way to save them.

Rayford didn’t know how much longer he could take being the devil’s own pilot.

Yes, Nicolae’s mass-murder is really beginning to annoy Rayford Steele.

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  • veejayem

    “…and a monster on the other.” A monster!? What kind of man thinks that about the wife he supposedly loves, even in such circumstances? Not “Oh, your poor, dear face,” not “As long as you’re alive nothing else matters”, but “…a monster”.

  • She was his sweet, innocent wife on one side and a monster on the other.

    – From the extract from Soul Harvest

    My reaction:

    *rolling eyes at the obvious hur-hur-PMS joke*

  • I submit that one doesn’t even need an interesting or well-built world. Just well-built sentences!

    Yep, yep. These threads often end up with rules about writing, and many of those rules are good guidelines to start with, so long as you treat them as general guidelines and not actual rules. However, many of them are also straightjackets, others are contradictory, others are actively harmful, and none of them apply all the time. The fact is, the only rule about writing that means anything is “write well”. 

  • There must be some kind of special Ig Nobel prize for literature for breaking all of those rules at once, as Jenkins does. :P

  • Well, it’s hard to be physically attracted to someone right after huge parts of their body have been obliterated. 

    And while Buck’s initial infatuation with Chloe was entirely non-physical (he’s attracted to her name, her youth, her purity, her “freshness”, but we don’t get a single word about her physical appearance from him), it’s pretty clear now that he also only values her on a superficial level.

  • Nah, apart from Nicolae Carpathia himself, the world of Left Behind is much safer and more orderly than the real world. No street crime, no rioting, no looting, no violence; Hell, people are so well-behaved and disciplined that they don’t even skip work during nuclear winter. The only people who slack off and screw around are the reporters, but that’s pretty true to life. 

    Honestly, if Carpathia wasn’t a mass-murderer, he could probably legitimately rule the world through unanimous approval based on his performance.

  • The fundamentalists have long railed against the evils of popular culture.

    Of course L&J have not played Fallout series of video games. The games manage to paint a believable picture of a world after nuclear devastation. Everything is blown up. Some places will never be inhabited. Some places will be rebuilt. The concept of “society” is a bit up in the air, but people will manage.

    All I’m saying, it’s not that difficult to think of what will happen to the world. The authors and artists have been thinking of those matters since the atomic age began.

    But I’m even more miffed that L&J do not really even bother to read up on what happened in real world nuclear bombings. I swear I didn’t really sleep after I read up on what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and I was also moderately creeped by the way the Chernobyl disaster was handled on-site). Free hint to the authors: Nuclear bombs cause really big damage. Radiation tends to be a bit of a problem. I’m a little bit understating here.

  • Ken

     And while Buck’s initial infatuation with Chloe was entirely non-physical

    Obviously that changed, since aunursa says she’s two months pregnant.  But what I don’t understand is why they decided to have a baby knowing the world ends in under five years, with continuous war, famine, and pestilence filling the time before.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t think it’s that they decided to have a baby. It’s that they decided to have sex and did not consider the possibility of using contraception, and then, when they find out she’s pregnant sometime later on (next book?), they do not consider the possibility of an abortion.

  • aunursa

    In Tribulation Force, Rayford asked Bruce whether it would be prudent for Chloe and Buck to have a baby during the Tribulation.  (Chloe and Buck had just started dating.)  But neither Chloe nor Buck was part of that conversation. Although the lovebirds shared their sexual pasts with each other, I don’t recall them ever discussing contraception or the possibility of a pregnancy.

    Doctor: Ask that man right there for the disposition of Mother Doe.
    Buck: Mother Doe?
    Doctor: By the time your wife arrived, we were into descriptive terms.
    Buck: But she’s not a mother.
    Doctor: Well, if she and the baby survive this, she will be, in about seven months.

    The doctor strode away; Buck nearly fainted.

    from Book #4: Soul Harvest

  • That’s just L&J relying on their (lack of) imaginations whenever rendering anything that isn’t explicitly laid out in their stupid little checklist.
     Buck and Chloe have kids because it’s what good Christian couples do and it doesn’t occur to them that couples might make different decisions if they knew for a fact that the world was going to be slowly torn apart by supernatural horrors over the next five years. It’s like how airlines, car rental agencies, and cell phone towers all work exactly the same as they do now even though there’s a nuclear apocalypse going on.

  • He’s harming Chloe to make Buck suffer.

    Considering the patriarchal evangelicalism L&J come from, we can’t expect women to be characters in their own right.

  • But what’s interesting is that the books allude to the fact that Buck and Chloe have had discussions about the ramifications of bringing a baby into this world that they know is ending.  Which at least implies that they might have been using birth control in the first year or so of their marriage. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    This being RTCworld, I suspect it’s more likely that they were trying to time their sex to be not near ovulation.

  • Münchner Kindl

    Nothing heightens suspense like constant reminders from the author that
    he used to live in Chicago and knows his way around the city.

    Actually, for anybody not from Chicago (and since the editors didn’t provide any maps in those books – after all, that would be like, research, and spiritual inspired authors don’t do that), it’s really confusing to get specific names instead of real descriptions. As a reader, I’m completly lost as to where Buck is, or where he is going. (Given the curios geography of places they don’t know, like Manhattan, and the general non-description in all scenes, this is not a change).

    Buck was in reasonably good shape for a man in his early thirties, but now his joints ached and his lungs pleaded for air

    I agree that this description achieves the opposite effect, by making Buck sound terribly out of shape given that in his early thirties, he should be very fit anyway.

    Doubly since he’s supposed to be a globe-trotting reporter, so that getting fat and out of shape is not an option when he’s running around following stories. (If he ever really did that).

  • Persia

    What the fuck does “Even Hattie wept” mean? Oh, I forgot, Hattie is a big slut. Man, the authors are assholes.

  • das

    “even Hattie wept” – so she’s still being treated like some evil harridan who barely deserves to breathe the same air.

  • EllieMurasaki

    And on something completely different: the Saint Harridan Kickstarter, which is more than fully funded at a week and a half to go, is for men’s-style suits for female-assigned-at-birth bodies. If that is a thing anyone present finds lacking in their life…

  • Jurgan

    Is it possible Jenkins was thinking Chicago was hit with a neutron bomb?  Supposedly, those would kill people without damaging non-living objects.  I’m not sure if those were ever created or just theoretical, though.

  • They’ve been made, but never used in actual warfare.

  •  That isn’t how neutron bombs work.

    I mean, yes, if Jerry Jenkins were thinking of a neutron bomb, that is how he would think that it would work, because it is a common misunderstanding. But neutron bombs are still nuclear bombs. They would still physically demolish a big chunk of any city you dropped on on.

    Neutron-enhanced bombs aren’t designed to kill people without damaging non-living objects. They’re designed to kill people even if they’re protected from the physical destruction. The idea was never that you’d drop one on a city to remove the population. The idea was that you could drop on on a line of tanks that was approaching your city, and even if the tanks were fortified enough to survive the explosion, it would still kill the people inside, so that you didn’t have to use the next-size-up nuclear bomb and catch your own city with the fireball.  They’re based on an old-school cold war type mentality: if the soviets sent a bunch of tanks to come take your city, normal nukes weren’t tremendously useful since a nuke powerful enough  to wipe out heavily fortified targets would have too large a radius of destruction to use on an army that was right outside the gates.

  • … and it’s not at all particularly convenient for someone determined to actually “win” a nuclear war to use neutron-enhanced bombs to wipe out more humans than buildings, now wouldn’t it?

    Blast a human with neutrons, and the prompt gamma-ray flux will probably kill them in short order, and if not, the delayed beta and gamma radiations will probably do the trick soon enough.

    Blast a building with neutrons, and you probably only need to wait about a year at most for the neutron-activated isotopes to decay. Exceptions include potassium-40 in concrete, and cobalt-60 from iron-60 in metal. Probably some others but those are the major radioactive isotopes that come to my mind. But if you’re willing to tolerate slightly higher background radiation some distance away from the hypocenter of your neutron-nuke, it is indeed the “capitalist weapon” as described by Brezhnev.

  • … and it’s not at all particularly convenient for someone determined to actually “win” a nuclear war to use neutron-enhanced bombs to wipe out more humans than buildings, now wouldn’t it?

    Not realistically, no. Because the area in which the neutron radiation would kill people is also roughly the same as the area in which the explosion would destroy unfortified buildings and the gamma radiation would still render the area unlivable. Against unarmored targets, neutron bombs *aren’t* markedly more deadly to humans than an equivalently-sized non-neutron-enhanced warhead. The difference is that against an armored target, the neutron radiation will puree animal tissue, rather than inducing the sortof slow, painful death that comes with gamma exposure and still gives the survivors a chance to finish driving to your city and blasting it to kingdom come.

  • These books are a lot more interesting to read if you imagine that they take place in an alien realm with bizarre geography that shifts and even disappears at random. Buck is out of breath not because he’s in bad shape physically but because the roads keep looping into themselves so often that he’s been running for five hours straight and hasn’t gone more than 12 feet. 

    (It also clarifies where places like “Tel Aviv” and “Manhattan” look nothing like their earthly counterparts, and why the human characters act so strangely. Ray’for’dh and Ch’loee are inscrutable creatures of incarnate chaos, and the cities in which they wander are inherently incomprehensible entities floating into the swirling madness of a realm that no human can safely contemplate.)

  • You keep talking like I’m thinking of use in a military scenario. I’m talking about against civilian populations.

  • So… the realm they’re in is a twisted-up version of Hogwarts writ large? ;)

    Or perhaps the bizarre thought-scenes Kirk experiences as he tries to find out wat happened to the Organians in “Spock Must Die!”? :)

  •  Yes. And what I’m telling you is that the real-world neutron bomb is not any use against a civilian population, because against an unarmored target, the difference between its effects and the effects of a non-neutron-enhanced bomb are negligible. The fact that the neutron burst is deadly to animal tissue is entirely moot if the animal tissue isn’t inside something that is strong enough to survive a near-hit by a nuclear bomb. I mean, yes, ifyou really wanted to kill everyone in a city, and you knew the city had shielded bomb shelters, you could use a neutron bomb to killthe people in the shelters, but you’d still be blowing upthe city with nuclear bombs in the process.

  • Münchner Kindl

     And in the hand of better authors, this would be an exciting, gripping story. The reader would wonder why the landscape is twisted – is reality being warped, and that’s reflected not only in geography, but in the inhuman reactions to catastrophe? Are alien mind powers influencing people? Is Chtulhu at large?

    Since the authors don’t acknowledge anything odd, sadly the opportunity is missed. And the terrible, terrible writing – lack of description, tedious repetition, boring phone-calls – is still there to slog through.

    There was TV movie (Taken or similar) about a woman who spends the first part of the movie looking for her missing child, only to encounter other parents with missing children who seem to have forgotten that they had children. Everybody has forgotten them – even the wallpaper in the kid’s former room has been covered up with a bland version.

    Then it turns out aliens did it, although that doesn’t explain how they did it, except with magic (like the aliens in Abyss). Good idea, bad execution.

  • aunursa

    The Forgotten, starring Julianne Moore and Gary Sinise, 2004

    The 10 Most Asinine Movie Twist Endings

  • Pacal

    Can this series get anymore seriously stupid!! From a brain-dead bad guy, who isn’t very scary, (Nicolae), and none too bright. We now have nuclear bombs dropping that have no blast or heat waves much less radiation. The Traffic lights still working is priceless. Jenkins and LaHaye don’t seem to have, even slightly, the ability to imagine the end of the world. Everything just continues to work in this apocalypse?!

    Meanwhile our “heroes” continue too, in their various ways to enable evil. I am absolutely floored that if they are convinced that Nicolae is the Antichrist, although a singularily pathetic and stupid one, why are they pussyfooting around and not offing him?

    Yeah I know that they finally attempt to kill him in later books, but why the wait?

    Too speculate this is the end times our authors and the characters are looking forward too and desire to happen. They want all that death and destruction otherwise Jesus won’t return so that attempting to short circuit all that by killing the Antichrist is trying to thwart the will of God.