L.B.: Ars poetica

L.B.: Ars poetica April 8, 2005

Left Behind, pp. 66-68, 73-76

This is the most human-seeming and almost successful passage in the book so far.

Jenkins, for once, eases off the expository gas and lets the reader look around as Rayford Steele explores the home he dreads he will find empty. The result is a little set piece where, for the first time, Rayford almost seems human.

Jenkins seems to realize that the key to this scene is the selection and presentation of details — the unattended and overcooked coffee pot, the still-sounding alarm clock, the pictures in the hallway that remain as the only presence amid absence. Not all these details are aptly chosen or aptly conveyed — this ain't "For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf." And some of the details convey something other than what LaHaye and Jenkins intend. Consider, for example, this description of the Steeles' bedroom:

At the end of the hall he paused before the French doors that led to the master suite. What a beautiful, frilly place Irene had made it, decorated with needlepoint and country knickknacks. Had he ever told her he appreciated it? …

Lbmovie_1"Country knickknacks"? Ugh. I suppose we're meant to take this as evidence that Irene Steele was a loving and devoted homemaker, but I read that as further confirmation that the frilly, preachy Irene was not someone you might enjoy knowing.

Still, the overall approach here is right. In the movie version, about which we'll have more to say later, the scene works better than it does on the page. That's partly because Brad Johnson, who plays Rayford, is a better actor than Jenkins is a writer. But it's also because a movie — a motion picture — is forced by nature of the medium to show more than it tells. This particular scene is one of the few that didn't have to be re-envisioned in order to work in the movie.

There's much here that is maudlin, or cliched, or both, but a few choice details stand out as well-chosen, as when Rayford looks into the garage because he can't yet summon the courage to examine the empty upstairs rooms:

If only one of the cars was missing. And one was! Maybe she had gone somewhere! But as soon as he thought of it, Rayford slumped onto the step inside the garage. It was his own BMW that was gone. The one he had driven to O'Hare the day before. …

Or this, after discovering his son's empty pajamas:

He … noticed a picture of himself on the bed table. He stood smiling inside the terminal, his cap tucked under his arm, a 747 outside the window in the background. The picture was signed, "To Raymie with love, Dad." Under that he had written, "Rayford Steele, Captain, Pan-Continental Airlines, O'Hare." He shook his head. What kind of dad autographs a picture for his own son?

He hits the note a little hard, and that last rhetorical question is probably overkill, but that's a revealing little glimpse of Rayford's character. Such moments are rare in these books, so let's be charitable and celebrate this one without getting too picky about it.

It is interesting, though, that the few aptly drawn bits of characterization in the book tend to be of Rayford Steele as a stern father figure. Such moments may reveal less about Rayford's character than they do about that of our co-authors and their relationship. I've noted that the two main heroes of our story — Rayford and Buck Williams — seem to be Mary Sue surrogates for Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, respectively. It's Jenkins who does the actual writing/typing of these books, and it's Jenkins who provides these very occasional insights into Rayford's odd character (and never provides similar insights into Buck's character). It may be, therefore, that the implied answer to the rhetorical question above — "What kind of dad autographs a picture for his own son?" — is "Tim LaHaye, that's who. This guy's a piece of work."

The mysterious disappearance of Irene and Raymie Steele is not, of course, at all mysterious to Rayford, who seems to have realized very early on that he was stuck inside a premillennial dispensationalist fantasy novel and that Darby's Rapture has come to pass. Just in case the reader is slower on the uptake than Rayford, though, Jenkins takes pains to remind us of this every few pages. Thus, when Rayford first enters the empty house, we get this:

Was it possible she had gone somewhere? Visited someone? Left him a message? But if she had and he did find her, what would that say about her own faith? Would that prove this was not the Rapture she believed in? Or would it mean she was lost, just like he was? For her sake, if this was the Rapture, he hoped she was gone.

Yet the passage that follows this betrays that odd notion. There is no message — Rayford's wife and son are gone. They are among the disappeared and Rayford, for once, responds like a human being. He breaks down weeping and cries himself to sleep.

That sorrow is the main reason this section of the book sort of works. Rayford here seems to stumble across an insight that eludes Jenkins and LaHaye. He realizes that this "Rapture" idea doesn't make any difference. Irene and Raymie are gone, and it doesn't make a bit of difference — to him, or to them — whether it's due to a Rapture or to an aneurysm.

Any pretend distinction between "raptured" and just plain "dead" is irrelevant.

This is the most pitiable aspect of Rapture mania. It is, at its core, driven by denial and fear of death, and so it desperately imagines a shortcut to the after life. One need only to consider that phrase — "the after life" — to realize that no such shortcut is possible.

Rayford's wife and son are dead. He seems to realize this, even if LaHaye and Jenkins do not.

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