TF: Showdown let-down

TF: Showdown let-down November 8, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 108-113

Buck Williams is hogging the spotlight.

So far in Tribulation Force, the Buck pages are outnumbering the Rayford pages by more than 2-to-1. And even when we do check in briefly with Buck's co-star here it's mainly in order to eavesdrop on Chloe's side of Buck's romantic subplot, in which Rayford plays the role of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

This imbalance isn't surprising, given the way our dual protagonists function as fantasy stand-ins for our dual authors and that Jerry Jenkins does all of the actual typing for these books. Writing about someone else's Mary Sue just isn't as much fun. So over the next 24 pages, we get 22 pages of Buck and two pages of Rayford talking to Chloe about Buck.

Eventually — whether out of a sense of fair-play or from a fear of angering his boss — Jenkins begins to correct this imbalance by conspiring to have Rayford hired as the civilian pilot of Nicolae's personal Air Force plane. Until then, though, Tim LaHaye's surrogate in these pages is reduced to the role of the hero's girlfriend's dad.

Rayford calls Chloe from his car phone:

"Wondered if you wanted to go out with your old man tonight," he suggested, thinking she needed to be cheered up.

That's astute fatherly intuition, given that the last time he spoke with her she was sobbing over the mistaken identity business with spiky Alice. She's a bit more composed now, but she's dreading their 8 p.m. prophecy study group with Bruce, knowing that Buck will be there.

"I'm just afraid of what I'll say, Dad. No wonder he's been cool toward me with that, whatever-you-call-her in his life. But the flowers! What was that all about?"

"You don't even know they were from him."

"Oh, Dad! Unless they were from you, they were from Buck."

Rayford laughed, "I wish I'd thought of it."

"So do I."

If you're thinking that a romantic bouquet of flowers from your father would be more disturbing than consoling, that's probably because you're not the sort of person who would also indignantly stammer "that, whatever-you-call-her" when trying to describe someone's POSSLQ.* The Victorian prudishness that renders someone inarticulate with horror at the thought of such cohabitation is directly proportionate to the creepy sort of attitude that would make a 20-year-old woman wish that the bouquet of flowers she just received came from her father. (See also, Purity Balls.)

Speaking of creepy — those flowers turn out later to have been sent by Bruce Barnes, who thus serves as an even starker example than Buck of the sort of awkward, passive-aggressive fumbling that LaHaye-style evangelicals refer to as "courtship." Bruce, whose wife disappeared less than a month ago, doesn't see anything inappropriate about sending anonymous flowers to a much-younger woman over whom he wields a kind of spiritual authority.

Having fulfilled his obligation to check in with Tim's character every once in a while, Jenkins quickly returns to Buck Williams, who is being led into Nicolae Carpathia's U.N. office by Hattie Durham.

Hattie works for Nicolae because Buck introduced the two of them. And she knows that Steve Plank is Buck's oldest and closest friend. Yet she ushers Buck into the room like she's the sergeant-at-arms for a joint session of Congress and they're all strangers:

"Mr. Secretary-General and Mr. Plank, Cameron Williams of Global Weekly."

Nicolae greets Buck with a bit less pomp and circumstance, reaching to shake his hand:

"Buck!" he said. "May I call you Buck?"

"You always have," Buck said.

After not even bothering to grunt in response to greetings from Chaim and Hattie, Buck here at least has the courtesy to express out loud the scarcely hidden disdain he shows whenever he encounters anyone outside of Bruce's inner-inner-circle. Just like with Hattie, Buck is too busy checking out Steve's outfit to say hello to him:

Steve, despite his position as executive editor of one of the most prestigious magazines in the world, had not always dressed the way you might expect a journalist to dress. He had always worn the obligatory suspenders and long-sleeved shirts, of course, but he was usually seen with his tie loosened and his sleeves rolled up, looking like a middle-aged yuppie or an Ivy League student.

This takes me back to the day I was hired at the newspaper, when I first received my obligatory suspenders along with a stern reminder than I must never, ever loosen my tie or roll up my sleeves, because we're journalists and we can't go around looking like  a bunch of undergrads from Yale.

Today, however, Steve looked like a clone of Carpathia. He carried a thin, black-leather portfolio and from head to toe looked as if he had come off the cover of a Fortune 500 edition of GQ. Even his hairstyle had a European flair — razor cut, blow-dried, styled and moussed. He wore new, designer-frame glasses, a charcoal suit just this side of pitch-black, a white shirt with a collar pin and tie that probably cost what he used to pay for a sports coat. The shoes were soft leather and looked Italian, and if Buck wasn't mistaken, there was a new diamond ring on Steve's right hand.

I've complained repeatedly that Jenkins almost never provides physical descriptions in these books. Now that he has, I wish he hadn't. Apart from getting the clothing details wrong, note that here, as with Hattie last week, we've been given a detailed picture of what Steve is wearing, but we still have no idea what Steve himself looks like. We know that his outfit is straight off the cover of the Esquire edition of Vanity Fair, but what does he look like? Tall or short? Fat or thin? And what color is his 1980s hair? We still have no idea.

Carpathia pulled an extra chair from his conference table, added it to the two before his desk, and sat with Buck and Steve. Right out of a management book, Buck thought. Break down the barrier between the superior and the subordinate.

Treating subordinates decently sets off Antichrist alarm-bells for Buck. Because, apparently, people who don't lord it over their supposed inferiors must be viewed with the same suspicion as he has for peacemakers and those who want to feed the hungry.

And now, some red meat for all of you Nicky/Buck shippers out there (you know who you are):

Every time Buck looked at Carpathia's strong, angular features and quick, seemingly genuine disarming smile, he wished with everything in him that the man was who he appeared to be …

In between those yearning glances at Nicolae, Buck looks on Steve with a measure of pity. Here is yet another friend, the third on this trip, from whom he will have to keep secret the knowledge that would save his soul:

Buck felt for Steve, and yet he had not been consulted when Steve had left Global Weekly for Carpathia's staff. Now, much as Buck wanted to tell him about his newfound faith, he could trust no one.

So just like with Chaim, Hattie and everyone who eventually reads his deliberately obscure cover story on the disappearances, Buck withholds the truth he knows from Steve. But he feels really bad about it.

Unless Carpathia had the supernat
ural ability to know everything, Buck hoped and prayed he would not
detect that Buck was an enemy agent within his camp. "Let me begin with a humorous idiom," Carpathia said, "and then we will excuse Steve and have a heart-to-heart, just you and me, hmm?"

Wait — weren't we told that this guy speaks flawless English?

"Something I have heard only since coming to this country is the phrase 'the elephant in the room.' Have you heard that phrase, Buck?"

OK, I suppose that is a "humorous idiom." But the thing about idioms is that you're supposed to use them as idioms and not …

Anyway, you can see where this is going. Nicolae is preparing to confront Buck directly about what he does or doesn't remember after the whole Stonagal-shooting, mass-brainwashing incident.

The set-up for this scene suggested that Buck would be struggling here with a moral dilemma involving whether or not to lie to Nicolae.

That might seem like a no-brainer. Nicolae is the Antichrist, the ultimate evil, a man destined to become a global tyrant who is already responsible for the murder of four people Buck knew personally. If Buck fails to deceive Nicolae, it likely means that he, Chloe, Rayford, Bruce and everyone else at New Hope Village Church will be killed. But Buck, as a good RTC, believes in moral absolutes,** and he cannot tell a lie because lies make baby Jesus cry.

In addition to that potential moral conflict, there's also a more pressing practical question: Even if Buck does decide to lie, he still can't possibly know what it is he should say to convince Nicolae that he isn't a threat. The trick here for Buck is to figure out what it is that Nicolae wants to hear him say and then to figure out a way of saying it that doesn't involve explicitly lying.

That almost seems promising — not a bad set-up for what ought to be a tense, suspenseful scene.

This being Tribulation Force, of course, such a scene never unfolds. The confrontation begins:

"I confess I was confused and a little hurt that you did not attend the private meeting where I installed the new ambassadors. However, as it turned out, it would have been as traumatic for you as it was for the rest of us."

Can it be that simple?

Nicolae seems to be asking only for an apology. Here is Buck's opening, his escape. He can save his own life and that of his beloved Chloe and the lives of the rest of the Tribulation Force just by saying, "I'm so sorry. Please accept my apology, I did not mean to insult you." He can say that without lying, and if he does so Nicolae will apparently be satisfied without seeking any further unknowable details about the false memories he tried to brainwash Buck into believing.

All Buck has to do is apologize and Nicolae will be convinced that the brainwashing succeeded, that Buck is not "an enemy agent within his camp," not a threat that needs to be eliminated.

But this is Buck Williams we're talking about:

It was all Buck could do to keep from being sarcastic. One thing he could not and would not do was apologize. How could he say he was sorry for missing a meeting he had not missed?

Buck's refusal to apologize has nothing to do with his qualms about the moral necessity of not telling a lie. It has to do with his injured pride at being falsely accused.

"I wanted to be there and wouldn't have missed it for anything," Buck said. Carpathia seemed to look right through him and sat as if waiting for the rest of the thought. "Frankly," Buck added, "that whole day seems a blur to me now."

Carpathia … looked from Buck to Steve and back. He looked peeved. "So, all right," he said, "apparently there is no excuse, no apology, no explanation."

Buck glanced at Steve, who seemed to be trying to communicate with his eyes and a slight nod, as if to say, Say something, Buck! Apologize! Explain!

"What can I say?" Buck said. "I feel badly about that day." That was as close as he would come to saying what they wanted him to say.

After all that build-up leading to this confrontation, this is what it comes down to — to Buck acting like he's a moody teenager and Nicolae is some cheery adult asking, "So, how was school today?" He responds to Nicolae's questions with a sullen hostility and the mistaken belief that he is keeping his sarcasm in check, sounding for all the world like Napoleon Dynamite.

The crux of this scene was whether or not Buck would be able to figure out "what they wanted him to say" and to say it in time to save himself. It ends with Buck realizing exactly what it is he needs to say, but refusing to do so because, "One thing he could not and would not do was apologize."

And just like that Buck's big showdown with the Antichrist fizzles into nothing. It doesn't matter whether or not Nicolae is convinced by anything he's said because this scene winds up following the same pattern as every other conversation between these two in these books. Neither character is allowed to do the thing they ought to have done right away — in Buck's case, flee for his life, in Nicolae's case, kill Buck really hard — because they're doomed to work together keeping Buck both alive and in proximity to Nicolae so that Jenkins' can use him to tell us what's going on there at Antichrist central. So the conflict between them isn't resolved here. It doesn't come to an end, but just kind of stops.

"All right," Nicolae says, abruptly and inexplicably switching gears. "Now, Buck, I want to talk to you as a journalist, and we will excuse our friend Mr. Plank."

And it's over. Buck stays here, in Nicolae's office, for another 45 pages, but from here on out it's all exposition, with the Antichrist reciting items from LaHaye's End Times check list out of his day-planner.

Is Buck safe now? Has Nicolae been convinced he was successfully brainwashed even though he refused to offer the requested and required apology?

Who knows? It doesn't matter. Nicolae's got a peace treaty with Israel to sign, a One World Government to arrange and a Whore of Babylon to impregnate. He's swamped.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* A Census Bureau acronym for "persons of opposite sex sharing living quarters," immortalized in Charles Osgood's poem, "There's nothing that I wouldn't do / If you would be my POSSLQ."

** A thriving cottage industry in the evangelical subculture involves intellectual-ish author/speakers whose primary theme is railing against the loss of "moral absolutes." Their sermon — it's the same spiel for all of them — consists of half-understood snippets of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer cobbled together to arrive at the conclusion that what they call "situational ethics" (which is not the same thing as what ethicists mean by that phrase) and what they call "moral relativism" (ditto) are leading us down a slippery slope toward legal abortion, gay marriage and universal health care. This is the theme, for example, of every third column published under Charles Colson's byline, of every fourth column written by Cal Thomas and of at least one article in any given issue of First Things.

Thanks to the popularity of this garbled deontology, "moral absolutes" has become, for most American evangelicals, a buzzword meaning, roughly, "opposed to legal abortion." The upshot of all of that is that for many American evangelicals, the idea of that it might be necessary in a given situation to tell a righteous lie — such as by lying to the Antichrist himself to prevent his slaughtering your entire community —
is tied up with the collapse of all m
orality, all truth, all meaning. Any concession that rules might sometimes need to be broken could, in their minds, lead directly to a slippery slide down the slope to gay abortionist indoctrination camps for preschoolers. Man was made for the sabbath, after all.

Evangelicals haven't always been this way. Corrie ten Boom's Holocaust memoir The Hiding Place was an enormously popular and beloved book among American evangelicals in the early 1980s. That book tells the story of her devout Dutch Reformed and piously evangelical family and how they became righteous gentiles in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, hiding Jewish neighbors in a secret room of their home. The ten Booms never hesitated to lie, lie, lie when they had to in order to protect those they were sheltering. They forged identity papers and ration cards, and never paused to agonize over whether such deceptions conflicted with their "moral absolutes." Corrie's father, Casper ten Boom, was a good Calvinist who would have said that such necessary lies were an example of what it means to live dependent on grace in a fallen world.

For the politicized proponents of "moral absolutes," talk like that just proves that Calvin was totally depraved and will burn in Hell with all the other moral relativists.

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