TF: Still a million things to say

TF: Still a million things to say August 28, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 78-82

Buck Williams is brooding in his new apartment:

He turned on a ball game but ignored it, keeping the sound low.

With an utter lack in these books of any indication of the weather or the time of year, I keep forgetting when the Rapture took place. I seem to recall we deduced a late-winter or early-spring setting. So it must be too late for football and too early for baseball, making this a basketball game Buck is ignoring.

But then even if I have the time of year wrong, and even though the book never mentions this, I'm sure that by now Nicolae Carpathia has outlawed both baseball and American football. Surely his OWG needs a One World Sport to go along with his One World Currency, One World Religion and One World Language. Basketball for winter and what we Americans call soccer for the summer would seem the obvious choices. (In keeping with his theme of unity through uniformity, Nicolae could decree that the seasons of the northern hemisphere apply throughout the globe. Changing the weather in half the globe by royal edict might not seem workable, but if he can establish a single language and religion by decree, then this should be easy.)

I do wonder what sort of crowd would be in attendance at an NBA game just weeks after everyone's children disintegrated. As for the teams themselves, I'm just guessing based on the profiles and speakers bureau of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but it seems like the NBA rosters would be far less depleted of top talent than those of the NFL or the major leagues.

He couldn't shake Bruce's message, either. It wasn't so much the content as Bruce's passion.

As always in these books, passionate intensity is the hallmark of the Real, True Christian. Not the content, but the passion; not the substance, but the sincerity. The corollary to this principle, of course, is that everyone who is not an RTC is fundamentally insincere. That helps to explain why even the villains in these books are boring.

Consider, though, the specific "content" of the message Bruce just delivered. He told the congregation that this is the apocalypse, the end of the world, that the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen could be heard approaching and that their futures were likely to be brief and filled with untold misery and suffering. It wasn't just a fire-and-brimstone sermon, it was a fire and brimstone forecast. Is it really possible for content like that to be overshadowed by the speaker's passionate delivery? If anything, I would think such a "message" would best be delivered dis-passionately so that the wildness of the words could not be mistaken for rhetorical flourish.

He needed to get to know Bruce better. Maybe that would be a cure for his loneliness — and Bruce's. … Buck was used to a solitary life, but he'd had a network of friends in New York.

No he didn't. Buck had and has one friend, Steve Plank. That's one more friend than Rayford Steele has ever had. Steve has been a pretty good friend — someone Buck could call to come pick him up at the airport. That's what friends do. And if you've got a friend you can call to pick you up at the airport when you're traveling incognito after faking your own death, then you've got a very good friend indeed. (Although, of course, calling your very close friend to ask for a ride isn't the smartest thing to do if you're trying to travel incognito.)

Apart from Steve, though, Buck has no friends. In the immediate aftermath of the Event he checked in with Steve, but he didn't have anybody else to check in with or to check in with him. Sad, actually.

He certainly wasn't handling the Chloe situation well. …

In part, this is because he seems more preoccupied with "the Chloe situation" (band-name alert) than with Chloe herself. Buck obsesses about the Chloe situation for another page before he realizes that, having spent Sunday morning in church, he hasn't placed a phone call for 20 pages.

He reached for the phone, but when he put it to his ear, he heard a strange tone, and then a recorded voice. "You have a message. Please push star two to hear it."

A message? I never ordered voice mail.

The italics there are original, intended I think as the typographical equivalent of ominous background music. DUM-dum-dummm. Here is Jerry Jenkins' notion of how best to convey the full, terrifying powers of the Antichrist. Nevermind that he is a global potentate capable of mesmerizing his followers into unwitting slavery — he can also leave you a voicemail message even if you never ordered voicemail.

The message isn't actually from the Antichrist himself, but from his lackey and Buck's only friend, Steve Plank. Steve still hasn't gotten the hang of voicemail, so he leaves another epic message, transcribed over more than a page of the book.

Steve reminds his friend that Nicolae expects to meet with him back in New York. And just in case the insistence of the global supreme leader isn't sufficient persuasion, he says, "I know you're unlisted there, but if you think Nicolae Carpathia is someone to trifle with, ask yourself how I got your phone number." (DUM-dum-dummm.)

The first line in Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil is spoken by a nameless Central Services bureaucrat. "Hi there. I want to talk to you about ducts." Ducts and ductwork are the dominant visual theme of the film. Watching that film forces you to ask what all those ducts mean, what they signify. I think it has something to do with bureaucracy, but I'm never entirely sure. Yet while Gilliam may sometimes be inscrutable, I know that he's an artist, so I'm confident his film's obsession with ducts means something, even if what that is isn't entirely clear.

LaHaye and Jenkins are not artists and I have no reason to suspect that the belabored obsession with telephony in these books means anything at all. I doubt they're even aware of how prevalent this motif is here — of how the details of every phone or voicemail system are lovingly savored or of how strange it may seem to readers that the Antichrist's ability to call anyone and leave a message is presented here as the most chilling imaginable display of his nefarious powers.

But even though it's not an intentional device, surely it tells us something about the authors and the way they perceive the world. The telephone thing is too big to ignore, but too strange to make sense of. Why telephones? What does it mean? I have no idea. It's frustrating, like … like I'm talking on the phone but I can't make out the voice on the other end.

Steve's message tells Buck, "There's a first-class ticket waiting for you at O'Hare under the name of McGillicuddy for a 9 o'clock flight tomorrow morning."

Why the fake name? And why "McGillicuddy"? This isn't explained, but it has inspired me. If I ever find myself as the evil supreme global leader, I'm going to make everyone travel under silly fake names. "Your reservations will be at the counter under the names Pat McCrotch and Seymour Butz," I'll say, and then giggle sophomorically in my evil lair high above the city.

We cut back to the Steeles:

"What's the scoop?" Rayford asked.

Chloe imitated the recorded voice. "The number you have dialed has been disconnected. The new number is …"

"Is what?"

She handed him a scrap of paper. The area code was for New York City. Rayford sighed.

This is how we learn that Hattie ha
s moved from Chicago to Ma
nhattan, and Rayford sighs because this confirms his deepest fear — that the woman he never touched is probably, right that very moment, receiving the hickey of the Beast.

After visiting with the Steeles for less than half a page we cut back to Buck.

Buck called Bruce Barnes.

"Do your ducts seem old-fashioned, out of date? Central Services' new duct designs …"

Remarkably, they agree to meet to talk in person rather than staying on the phone. Bruce says he'll come over to Buck's apartment.

To recap some of what we've just learned, then, we now know that the Antichrist has tracked down where Buck is living and is keeping an eye on him there. Buck therefore asks the other members of the super-secret Tribulation Force to come visit him at the apartment. One gets the feeling that once they finish building Bruce's secret shelter under the church, they'll put up a sign on the highway reading, "Secret Resistance HQ, Next Exit."

Buck decided he would take his phone off the hook after one more call. He didn't want to risk talking to Plank, or worse, Carpathia, until he had talked over and prayed about his plans with Bruce. …

Just one more phone call to check in with the woman he loves:

Buck called Alice, the Chicago bureau secretary. "I need a favor," he said.

"Anything," she said.

The authors refuse to acknowledge the existence of The Alice Situation, but it seems far more, um, situated, than anything supposedly felt between Buck and Chloe. What we've seen hasn't matched with what we've been told. We've seen Buck and Alice flirting and laughing together and we've seen Buck and Chloe greet one another with a chilly formality. I think Jenkins imagines Buck and Chloe as Mr. Darcy and Miss Bennet, but what he intends to convey romantic tension just suggests plain old tension. Yet with Alice, Buck seems relaxed and at ease.

He told her he might be flying to New York in the morning but he didn't want Verna Zee knowing about it. "I also don't want to wait any longer for my stuff, so I'd like to bring you my extra key before I head for the airport. If you wouldn't mind bringing that stuff over here for me and locking back up, I'd really appreciate it."

"No problem. I have to be going that way late morning anyway. I'm picking up my fiancé at the airport. Verna doesn't have to know I'm delivering your stuff on the way."

Aha. So that's where Jenkins is going with this.

It's a somewhat capable set up for the "It's Not What It Looks Like" romantic confusion that will inevitably follow. But while Jenkins gets the basic mechanics of that old reliable plot twist lined up well enough, he doesn't seem to realize that it requires us knowing that Buck isn't at all interested in Alice, only in Chloe. And based on what he's shown us, we can't know that. We're heading into pages upon pages in which he tells us over and over of the sincere feelings Buck and Chloe feel when they think of each other, but none of that is anywhere as convincing as "I need a favor," "Anything."

This is again mainly due to simple Bad Writing, but I think it also relates to their larger insistence that sincerity is distinct from action, faith from works, word from deed, content from passion. If your religion tells you that faithfulness is a matter only of saying the right words and assenting to the proper notions then you're liable to wind up with a similarly warped understanding of romance and every other form of love.

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