L.B.: Nero’s fiddle

L.B.: Nero’s fiddle April 1, 2005

Left Behind, pp. 71-73

Two things happen over these few page of the book. The surface-level thing is that Buck Williams talks to a customer service agent in the airline club and she helps him to charter a private flight to New York City.

Suddenly it was Buck's turn at the counter. He gathered up his extension cord and thanked the young woman for bearing with him. "Sorry about that," he said, pausing briefly for forgiveness that was not forthcoming. "It's just that today, of all days, well, you understand."

Apparently she did not understand. She'd had a rough day, too. She looked at him tolerantly and said, "What can I not do for you?"

"Oh, you mean because I did not do something you asked?"

"No," she said. "I'm saying that to everybody. It's my little joke because there's really nothing I can do for anybody. No flights are scheduled today. The airport is going to close any minute. …"

Both Buck and the woman at the PanCon counter eventually recover their cheer and their charm and wind up having a fairly friendly conversation that results in the woman helping Buck find a charter pilot.

To appreciate the other dynamic at work in these pages, though, we need to step back and reconsider the backdrop for this flirty exchange of banter.

Taken in isolation, this is an unremarkable bit of conversation. The airport is completely shut down, so both Buck and the woman are a bit cross, a bit wearied by the inconvenience and the extra work that this shutdown entails for them. Yet despite this inconvenience, each is able to summon enough pluck to be civil and even cheerful. We've all faced unavoidable travel delays and we can all relate to how frustrating they can be.

The good cheer demonstrated by Buck and the PanCon woman might be seen as exemplary if the airport's paralysis were the result of a freak snowstorm, or a power outage, or a computer glitch. Their glib, these-things-happen, whatchagonnado? playfulness might constitute a healthy attitude in such a situation.

But that's not what's going on here. That's not why Buck and the PanCon woman are having a "rough day."

The airport is shutting down, to their inconvenience, because of a fatal plane crash. That alone makes their conversation seem inappropriate and self-centered. That alone should be enough to cause the next person in line to interrupt with something like, "Gee, I'm sorry you're having such a rough day and this is all so inconvenient for you, but think of that poor bastard who crashed his Piper Cub out there on the runway. Think of his family and how they must feel …"

But the tragedy shutting down the airport doesn't involve just the death of one person in a small plane. It involves dozens of crashes on the runway. Dozens of crashes of giant passenger planes carrying hundreds of people. The death toll there at O'Hare could easily surpass 1,000. And, by the way, the same thing has happened at every airport, everywhere in the world. Tens of thousands are dead. Thousands more are injured, many of them still lying, untended, on the runways outside the windows of the PanCon Club where Buck and the woman are chatting.

Oh yes, and the children are gone. Everyone's children. All of them. Just … gone. Without explanation.

That's the background here. That's the setting that LaHaye and Jenkins have created. It's one of the most awful and awesome panoramas of human suffering ever imagined in a work of fiction. But the audacity of the wholesale suffering that L&J imagine is dwarfed by the greater audacity of their wholly disregarding the very scenario they have presented. The authors and their protagonists seem wholly unperturbed by all of this death and destruction, save in how it presents a logistical inconvenience and cramps the travel plans of our heroes.

Given this context, Buck and the PanCon woman cannot be described as merely playfully glib. Their glibness — their self-centered obsession with their own inconvenience — is monstrous, psychopathic.

I wish I could read this as a sly, intentional message of the book. I wish L&J were here trying to convey that our left-behind, and therefore unredeemed, protagonists are unreliable narrators whose unregenerate, sinful natures make them wholly incapable of basic human empathy or sympathy and the instinctive desire to help in time of tragedy.

But there's no indication that this is what's going on. Just as we are intended to believe that, despite his profoundly dense incuriosity, Buck Williams is the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time —

"I wanted to get into journalism," the woman tells Buck. "I studied it in college."

"If you really want to be a journalist," he does not say in reply, "then why are you sitting here behind a desk that might as well be closed instead of getting your butt out there, on the other side of that window, where the biggest story in human history is unfolding even as we speak?" He does not say this because it never occurs to him.

— Likewise, despite his utter lack of courage and his unwillingness to help others in crisis, we are intended to believe that Buck is a good guy and a genuinely noble protagonist.

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