L.B.: Bucky’s in love

L.B.: Bucky’s in love November 30, 2007

Left Behind, pp. 364-375

Abruptly, we shift back to Buck’s perspective as he sees, for the first time, his Beatrice:

Buck was stunned. He loved Chloe’s name, her eyes, her smile.

He loved her name? I suppose a charitable reading could make sense of this as an attempt to show that Buck is so thoroughly smitten that he wants to halloo her name to the reverberate hills and make the babbling gossip of the air cry out “Chloe!” But it’s still kind of odd. He seems to be forgetting what any garage rocker could tell him: The name doesn’t make the band; the band makes the name.

Then again, this notion that names can be inherently attractive may help to explain Buck’s lack of interest in Hattie.

She looked directly at him and gave him a firm handshake, something he liked in a woman. So many women felt it was feminine to offer a limp hand. What a beautiful girl! he thought. He had been tempted to tell Captain Steele that, as of the next day, he would no longer be just a writer but would become executive editor. But he feared that would sound like bragging, not complaining, so he had said nothing.

So it’s not just her name, it’s also her firm handshake and … well, that’s it, actually. The portrayal of love at first sight here is trickier than normal due to Jenkins’ steadfast refusal to offer any physical description of his characters. Buck can fall in love with Chloe’s eyes and her smile, but he can’t fall in love with her long, wavy brown hair because we still don’t know whether her hair is long or short, curly or straight, light or dark. (Initially, I admit, the name Chloe had me reading with a mental image of Allison Mack, but that didn’t really fit — only serving to remind me that the Smallville Torch had better reporters than anybody who works for Global Weekly.)

We’re not really ever told why the lightning bolt of infatuation has struck our love-addled hero. What is it about Chloe that Buck falls in love with? He tells us about her eyes and her smile, I suppose, because these are unthreateningly chaste features to mention, but beyond the fact that she has eyes (two, one assumes) and is capable of smiling, we learn nothing about her here. What seems to have happened is this: She meets Buck and her eyes light up and she smiles. He thinks to himself, “I love her eyes and her smile,” by which he means “I love that she looked at me and smiled.” What first attracts Buck to Chloe, then, is the idea that she might be attracted to him. (That’s an accidentally realistic detail, because that’s often how it really works. Except for when it doesn’t.)

“Look,” Hattie said, “the captain and I need a few minutes, so why don’t you two get acquainted and we’ll all get back together later. Do you have time, Buck?”

I do now, he thought. “Sure,” he said, looking at Chloe and her father. “Is that all right with you two?”

The captain seemed to hesitate, but his daughter looked at him expectantly. She was clearly old enough to make her own decisions, but apparently she didn’t want to make things awkward for her dad.

“It’s OK,” Captain Steele said hesitantly. “We’ll be in here.”

“I’ll stash my bag, and we’ll just take a walk in the terminal,” Buck said. “If you want to, Chloe.”

She smiled and nodded.

This is, again, a Buck’s-perspective scene, so it’s Buck here who considers it natural to refer to Rayford as “Captain Steele.” Likewise it’s Buck here who conveys the authors own stilted sense of propriety in matters of courtship with the Captain’s adult daughter. And “courtship” is the right word there. Google it and you’ll find a whole creepy subculture providing the elaborate rules concocted to prevent young fundamentalist couples from coupling.*

There’s no reason why a thoroughly secular urban professional like Buck should be acting like he’s following Bill Gothard’s “Foundational Principles of Courtship,” so why does he? Why, for that matter, do so many of the supposedly unregenerate, unsaved heathens in this book behave so circumspectly?

Partly, I would guess, this is due to the need not to shock the sensibilities of the intended audience. But the authors don’t simply avoid dwelling on the details of the sins of sinners, they portray them as all-but not sinning. For both Rayford and Buck, the scenes in which they confess their sins read like they’re answering that useless standard job interview question about your “faults and weaknesses.” (“O Lord forgive me for sometimes working too hard and for being a perfectionist …”)

Or, more to the point, it’s like that moment in a bad preacher’s sermon, right after he’s said, “We’re all sinners,” when he suddenly loses his nerve and illustrates his point by confessing to some inconsequential failing. You can see the fear in his eyes — you can see that he’s thinking that if he honestly confesses to something more meaningful he will lose our respect or our love or our acceptance. This, then, becomes the message of the sermon. The congregation understands that they, too, must pretend they have nothing meaningful to confess. And the amazing grace the preacher was just trying to describe is stiff-armed away as we all go back to pretending we don’t need it.

This is hypocrisy, of course, but it’s a hypocrisy driven by fear rather by pride. This is another reason why I think the 12-step group meeting in the basement is usually a more authentic use of the building than the congregation meeting upstairs.

It had been a long time since Buck had felt awkward and shy around a girl. As he and Chloe strolled and talked, he didn’t know where to look and was self-conscious about where to put his hands. Should he keep them in his pockets or let them hang free? Let them swing? Would she rather sit down or people watch or window-shop?

There’s an awful lot of that. What there’s not a lot of is dialogue — the actual words they say to one another. Instead we’re told things like this:

He asked her about herself and where she went to college, what she was interested in. She told him about her mother and her brother, and he sympathized. Buck was impressed at how smart and articulate and mature she seemed. …

She wanted to know about his life and career. He told her anything she asked but little more.

So what is Chloe interested in? Smart, articulate and mature-type things, apparently, but more than that we’ll never know. The first line of actual dialogue is this, from Chloe: “Ever been married?” We get only a paraphrased summary of Buck’s response:

He was glad she had asked. He was happy to tell her no, that he had never really been serious enough with anyone to be engaged.

Those of us who have served time in conservative Christian youth groups recognize this theme from the many, many Why Premarital Sex Will Destroy You Wait lectures we heard. Your purity and innocence, the lecture always said, are the Greatest Gift that you can offer to your spouse on your wedding day. Setting aside the merits of this particular pitch for chastity, the strange thing here is finding that the inner monologue of jet-setting, secular, un-saved Buck Williams sounds like a True Love Waits seminar.

I’m really not sure what to make of that. It could be an attempt to imply some kind of natural law argument (even the heathen know that sex is dirty and shameful). Or it could be an expression of another theme from the saltpeter lecture series: You might be envious of people who are getting it on, but really, they secretly wish they were like you. Or, because the lecture’s whole approach is shaped by some disastrously romantic notions about The One Special Someone Destined For You, it could be an indication that saintly Irene’s prayers for her daughter’s future One Special Someone have cloaked Buck in an aura of divine protection from that most fecund ditch so that when they finally meet, as destined, he will be as pure and unspoiled as she is.

That last idea would also explain why the chaperoning angels have been so busy chasing away Chloe’s would-be suitors:

“How about you?” he asked, feeling the discussion was now fair game. “How many times have you been married?”

She laughed. “Only had one steady. When I was a freshman in college, he was a senior. I thought it was love, but when he graduated, I never heard from him again.”

Buck, who has already noticed that “she had to be at least 10 years younger than he was,” has to be a bit encouraged here to learn that Chloe’s OK with dating older guys. “His loss,” Buck says of the Stanford senior who broke her heart. “Thank you,” she says, and suddenly Buck turns into Anthony Michael Hall as Farmer Ted:

Buck felt bolder. “What was he, blind?” She didn’t respond.

How could she, really?

Buck mentally kicked himself and tried to recover. “I mean, some guys don’t know what they have.”

She was still silent, and he felt like an idiot. …

She stopped in front of a gourmet bakery shop. …

So it was window-shopping, then, and they’ve continued strolling this whole time. You’d think over the past two pages of conversation we’d have gotten some prior clue that was the case. That context matters for conversations like this one. Silently walking along through a noisy airport is a different kind of non-response to Buck’s clumsy overture than silently sitting there across from him in an airport coffee shop would be. But that’s just a quibble and there’s no need to get bogged down in quibbles when there are much more flagrantly awful passages to deal with, such as what comes next: Jenkins’ Attempt at Witty Banter.

She stopped in front of a gourmet bakery shop. “Feel like a cookie?” she asked.

“Why? Do I look like one?”

“How did I know that was coming?” she said. “Buy me a cookie and I’ll let that groaner die a natural death.”

“Of old age, you mean,” he said.

“Now that was funny.”

No. No it wasn’t. If this is Buck’s idea of flirting, then Irene’s prayers to preserve his virginity really weren’t necessary. After this we gratefully cut away from Mr. Benchley and Ms. Parker for a few pages. Sadly for the reader, however, those pages are filled with Rayford’s attempts to seduce Hattie into Heaven. We’ll skip that this week and get back to our young lovers, who are now mid-cookie, although there’s no way to tell whether they’ve resumed their stroll or have settled into a booth at the bakery.

“You’re gonna find my dad’s theory of the disappearances very interesting,” Chloe said.

“Am I?” Buck said. She nodded and he noticed a dab of chocolate at the corner of her mouth. He said, “May I?” extending his hand. She raised her chin and he transferred the chocolate to his thumb. Now what should he do? Wipe it on a napkin? Impulsively he put his thumb to his lips.

“Gross!” she said. “How embarrassing! What if I have the creeping crud or something?”

“Then now we’ve both got it,” he said, and they laughed. Buck realized he was blushing …

This scene reads a lot better if you picture the parts of Buck and Chloe being played by Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley.

She starts to explain Rayford’s theory, but Buck stops her. “Don’t tell me,” he says. “I want to get it fresh from him, on tape. … That’s just how I like to work.” This is what separates the GIRAT from his competitors — he avoids all of that distracting “research” and “trying to learn about a subject before conducting an interview” business. He explains to Chloe that, for the story he’s planning:

“We’re going to get some college kids’ ideas, but it would be unlikely we would use two people from the same family. …”

“You just kind of categorized me there,” Chloe says, demonstrating again that she is, indeed, kind of articulate or something.

“Categorized you?”

“As a college kid.”

“Ooh, I did, didn’t I? My fault. I know better. Collegians aren’t kids. I don’t see you as a kid, although you are a lot younger than I am.”

“Collegians? I haven’t heard that term in a while.”

Probably not. At least not since she stopped volunteering as a candy striper at the Home for Pretentious Nonagenarians. Seriously, apart from its use as the intentionally institutional-sounding name of dozens of student newspapers or as the intentionally old-fashioned sounding name of dozens of a capella groups, have you ever heard someone say this? “I am showing my age, aren’t I?” Buck says, but he isn’t really — he’s showing someone else’s age.

The subject of Buck’s age, and thus their considerable age-difference, brings on an unfortunate second round of Witty Banter:

“How old are you, Buck?”

“Thirty and a half, going on 31,” he said with a twinkle.

“I say, how old are you?” she shouted, as if talking to a deaf old man. Buck roared.

“I’d buy you another cookie, little girl, but I don’t want to spoil your appetite.”

Emboldened by his charming dirty-old-man routine, Chloe hints at her affection and shows Buck they have something in common — a thing for names:

“I like the way you say my name.”

“I didn’t know there was any other way to say it,” he said.

“Oh, there is. Even my friends slip into making it one syllable, like Cloy.”

“Chloe,” he repeated.**

“Yeah,” she said. “Like that. Two syllables, long O, long E.

(That part of this scene plays better if you imagine the parts of Buck and Chloe as played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.) I think this bit was included by the authors as a pronunciation tutorial for readers. Sadly, they don’t include a similar tutorial for Buck’s name. Instead, Buck switches from Bogie to Walter Brennan and they go back to the Dirty Old Man shtick:

“I like your name.” He slipped into an old man’s husky voice. “It’s a young person’s name. How old are you, kid?”

“Twenty and a half, going on 21.”

“Oh, my goodness,” he said, still in character, “I’m consortin’ with a minor!”

Mercifully, they wrap up this bit before this “character” gets any creepier. Buck stops trying to whimsically tease his collegian friend about her youth and reverts to deadly serious condescension:

“You play a lot older.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, smiling self-consciously as if she wasn’t sure he was serious.

“Oh, do,” he said. “Few people your age are as well-read and articulate as you are.”

“That was definitely a compliment,” she said.

No. No it wasn’t.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Wife-beating apologist James Dobson provides this useful summary of “courtship,” which in turn links to an article titled “Lancelot Lives,” which is intended to help teenage boys become “knights in shining armor.” Memo to Focus on the Family: You might want to re-read the story of Lancelot.

** Chloe is a biblical name, sort of. It was a Greek name sometimes used for the goddess Demeter, and so it’s not surprising that it was also the name of a woman in the church at Corinth who briefly appears in Paul’s first letter to them (11:1). Here’s the entire passage: “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.” Those of us who disagree with Tim LaHaye’s wife about the leadership role of women in the church like to point out that Paul didn’t seem to think it unusual or improper that Chloe was both the head of her household and a leader in the local church.

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