L.B.: Dissipation

L.B.: Dissipation September 21, 2007

Left Behind, pp. 332-337

When last we saw Buck Williams, he was rushing off to the airport to meet Hattie Durham even though he doesn’t really even remember what she looks like. He remembers that she is “drop dead gorgeous,” but nothing more specific.

It’s hard to fault Buck for this fuzzy mental image, since that three-word cliche is nearly all we readers were told about what Hattie looks like. We’ve also been told she is “attractive” and “beautiful,” but beyond that nothing. It’s possible this tells us something about the authors’ idea of female beauty. Maybe they think all beautiful women look alike, or that “gorgeous” women are all interchangeable. Or maybe they think “hot or not” is all that matters when describing a woman. Then again, we don’t really know what Buck, Rayford, Bruce, Steve or Rosenzweig looks like either.

Here was the last thing we read in the Buck story line:

Buck was glad for the diversion of seeing Hattie Durham. His only question now was whether he would recognize her. They had met under most traumatic circumstances.

And here is the very first thing we read when this story line resumes:

Hattie had rushed up to Buck when he arrived at the club around 11. His anticipation of any possibilities dissipated when the first thing out of her mouth was, “So, am I gonna get to meet Nicolae Carpathia?”

So we still don’t know, and Buck still doesn’t care, what she looks like. And once Buck’s “anticipation of any possibilities dissipated,” he seems to lose all interest in her. I do love that phrase, though. It sounds like something from a pharmaceutical ad: “If anticipation of possibilities fails to dissipate within four hours, see your doctor.”

Once Buck’s anticipation shrivels, so too does his opinion of Hattie, and it suddenly occurs to him how strange it was of him to offer to introduce this flight attendant he barely knows to the president of Romania, with whom he is only slightly better acquainted (though I suppose collaborating on the coverup of two murders does give Buck and Nicolae a kind of intimate bond). He was eager to boast that he was chummy with the Sexiest Antichrist Alive when he thought this might lead to “possibilities” with Hattie, but once he realizes she’s more interested in possibilities with the Gatsby-look-alike political rock star, he tries to weasel out of it:

When Buck had originally promised to try to introduce her to Nicolae, he hadn’t thought it through. Now, after hearing Steve rhapsodize about the prominence of Carpathia, he felt trivial calling to ask if he could introduce a friend, a fan. He called Dr. Rosenzweig, “Doc, I feel kinda stupid about this, and maybe you should just say no, that he’s too busy. I know he’s got a lot on his plate and this girl is no one he needs to meet.”

“It’s a girl?”

“Well, a young woman. She’s a flight attendant.”

“You want him to meet a flight attendant?”

Buck didn’t know what to say. That reaction was exactly what he had feared. When he hesitated, he heard Rosenzweig cover the phone and call out for Carpathia. “Doc, no! Don’t ask him!”

As much fun as it is to watch our cocksure protagonist squirm like this, the whole scene is still deeply odd and contrived. None of this would be happening if Plank, Stonagal, Nicolae, President Fitzhugh or the authors had any idea how to go about their jobs. Carpathia is supposed to be the toast of the town in New York and Hattie can’t be the only “fan” or social climber desperate to meet him. You’d think, then, that somebody — his new press secretary, his influential banker-patron, the president who invited this fellow head-of-state to stay at the White House — would be arranging some kind of formal reception at which people might actually be able to meet him without showing up, unannounced, at his hotel suite during the middle of a week day. Buck could have invited Hattie as his guest — a less awkward situation all around as well as a somewhat classier attempt by Buck to pursue his possibilities with Hattie the Hottie. But Buck, Hattie and the authors all lack the patience for such normal behavior. They’re all determined to pursue their various agendas now, so instead we end up with this weird little scenario.

Rosenzweig came back on and said, “Nicolae says that any friend of yours is a friend of his. He has a few moments, but only a few moments, right now.”

Buck and Hattie rushed to the Plaza in a cab. Buck realized immediately how awkward he felt and how much worse he was about to feel. Whatever reputation he enjoyed with Rosenzweig and Carpathia as an international journalist would forever be marred. He would be known as the hanger-on who dragged a groupie up to shake hands with Nicolae.

No sooner has Buck dismissively characterized Hattie as a “groupie” than we get a page of dialogue intended mainly to portray Hattie as pushy and overly forward. This section of the book follows Buck’s perspective amd it’s hard not to read this as another example of how jet-setting international writer Buck Williams is a transparent Mary-Sue stand-in for author Jerry Jenkins. Once Hattie makes it clear that Buck/Jenkins has no “possibilities” with her, she is portrayed as a groupie/slut/bitch. It must be thoroughly, um, disippating for Jenkins to experience such rejection from a fictional female that he created.

Here again we should probably try to entertain the possibility that the authors are attempting some subtle form of unreliable narration. Buck, after all, has not yet said the magic words, so he remains a degenerate sinner. Maybe this whole scene is meant to illustrate that Buck’s attitude and actions here are, in fact, sinful. Maybe this is a sophisticated attempt to show that Buck’s misogyny borne of rejection and his self-centered refusal to see Hattie as valuable apart from her potential as a sexual conquest are evidence of his bad behavior, not hers.

Would that it were so, but unfortunately that interpretation contradicts everything else these books these books have to say about women and men. Every attitude expressed by Buck here — his condescending exploitation, his bitter, spiteful frustration — is reinforced later in the book or the series by born-again characters intended to be perceived as wholly reliable narrators. Hattie refuses to be merely a sexless and submissive helpmeet, so she is condemned as a slut. These are, in the world of Left Behind, binary options for women.

In the hallway Hattie stopped by a mirror and checked her face. A bodyguard opened the door, nodded at Buck, and looked Hattie over from head to toe. She ignored him, craning her neck to find Carpathia. Dr. Rosenzweig emerged from the parlor. “Cameron,” he said, “a moment please.”

Buck excused himself from Hattie, who looked none too pleased. Rosenzweig pulled him aside and whispered, “He wonders if you could join him alone first?”

There follows a bit of less-than-intriguing intrigue between Buck and Nicolae, which we’ll get back to later. Their conversation ends with Buck saying:

“I just wanted to apologize for bringing this girl up to meet you. She’s just a flight attendant, and –”

“Nobody is just anything,” he said, taking Buck’s arm. “Everyone is of equal value, regardless of their station.”

Carpathia led Buck to the door, insisting he be introduced. Hattie was appropriate and reserved, though she giggled when Carpathia kissed her on each cheek. He asked her about herself, her family, her job. Buck wondered if he had ever taken a Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people.

If we can trust Buck’s “Carnegie” quip, then perhaps there was something too-slick and salesmanlike about Carpathia’s conversation with Hattie. Even so, the contrast between this encounter and her recent conversations with Rayford is remarkable. Even if it’s only feigned, Nicolae expresses an interest in her as a person; Rayford just held the phone at arm’s length, rolling his eyes and waiting for her to stop boring him with talk about her family and her fears so that he could invite her over for a sermon. Nicolae concludes the conversation by shaking hands with Hattie, kissing her hand and saying “Miss Durham, it shall be my pleasure should our paths cross again.” That’s more courtesy and affection than Rayford displayed in all the years of his non-affair.

Buck ushered her out and found her nearly overcome. “Some guy, huh?” he said.

“He gave me his number!” she said, nearly squealing.

“His number?”

Hattie showed Buck the business card Nicolae had handed her. It showed his title as president of the Republic of Romania, but his address was not Bucharest as one would expect. It was the Plaza Hotel, his suite number, phone number, and all. Buck was speechless. Carpathia had penciled in another phone number, not at the Plaza, but also in New York. Buck memorized it.

Buck’s two-pronged jealousy here invites another round of Buck/Nicolae slash, but apart from the easy jokes, it also reminds me of another story that illustrates what this rise-of-the-Antichrist tale might have been in the hands of more capable writers. This trio of Nicolae, Buck and Hattie reminds me of the trio of Willie Stark, Jack Burden and Anne Stanton at the center of All the King’s Men. That tragedy of hubris and the seduction of power could have provided a template for this story, but LaHaye and Jenkins aren’t interested in tragedy because they’re not interested in humanity and the choices we humans make.

“We can eat at the Pan-Con Club,” Hattie said.

Every time she says that, I think of the Kit Kat Club and then I get this mental image of the Pan-Con Girls doing the Fosse choreography to “Don’t Tell Mama.” Come to think of it, Cabaret could also have served as a template for this rise-of-the-Antichrist story (complete, again, with a Buck/Burden writer-as-narrator figure). But that, again, would have required an appreciation for tragedy — and despite some similarities, Hattie Durham is no Sally Bowles.

“I don’t really want to see this pilot at one, but I think I will, just to brag about meeting Nicolae.”

“Oh, now it’s Nicolae, is it?” Buck managed, still shaken by Carpathia’s business card. “Trying to make someone jealous?”

“Something like that,” she said.

All this business about business cards and phone numbers suddenly reminds Buck of what book he’s in.

“Would you excuse me a second?” he said. “I need to make a call …”

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