TF: What are the odds?

TF: What are the odds? April 13, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 192-205

Let's just get this over with.

Chloe again asks Buck where he's been and what he's been doing and he again doesn't answer, telling her, "I'd rather not get into that." For the authors, this is not meant to suggest that Buck is being evasive, but that she is being unjustly suspicious.

Sure, Buck kept his trip to New York hidden from Chloe and misled her about what he's been up to, but there's a perfectly good reason for that. And just because the authors never explain what that reason might be, we readers are still meant to agree with their conclusion that Chloe is entirely to blame.

Anyway, after another page of circular dialogue, we finally take the tiniest step toward resolving this miserable Not What It Looks Like confusion:

"I was just dropping off some keys to Alice."

"Alice? That's her name?"

Buck nodded, lost.

"What's her last name, Buck?"

"Her last name? I don't know. I've always just called her Alice. She's new. She replaced Lucinda's secretary, who disappeared."

Let's take a moment to consider the career path of poor Spiky Alice. She's found one of the job openings created by the Event, replacing one of the many millions of workers who vanished — not to mention the many more who were killed in all the plane and auto crashes that followed those vanishings. It's a pretty lousy job — involving schlepping boxes in her own car with no talk of gas money or mileage payments — but my guess is, post-Event, anybody with a job at all is just lucky to have it.

My guess is that the job openings created by the Event can't begin to make up for the many more millions of job losses due to the disappearance of every child on the planet. I don't just mean the obvious economic sectors directly obliterated by the absence of children and the end of the category "parent," but also all those indirectly affected by this massive, global economic collapse. Like, say, airlines and weekly news magazines.

Anyway, another page of unremarkably clumsy dialogue establishes that Alice is engaged, but not to Buck.

"Where had you seen Alice?"

Chloe spoke so softly Buck had to lean forward to hear. "At your condo."

Buck sat back, everything coming into focus. He wanted to laugh, but poor Chloe! He fought to stay serious. "It's my fault," he said. "I invited you, my plans changed, and I never told you."

"She had your keys," Chloe whispered.

Buck shook his head sympathetically. "I gave them to her so she could deliver some equipment I was expecting at the office."

And finally, finally, Chloe realizes that Buck isn't the kind of cad who would be hitting on her while living with his secret fianceé. No, he's just the kind of cad who bullies secretaries into lugging his boxes around.

Buck's frustration with Chloe melted into sympathy. She couldn't maintain eye contact, and she was clearly on the verge of tears. "So you really didn't send the flowers," she whispered.

"If I'd known I needed to, I would have."

Chloe uncrossed her arms and buried her face in her hands. "Buck, I'm so embarrassed," she moaned, and the tears came.

When the big finale of your romantic comedy interlude ends with the guy chuckling while the girl weeps, humiliated, I think you're doing it wrong. It makes the reader suspect that this is your idea of a happy ending. Worse, since romantic comedy is based on the satisfaction of resolution, it makes readers suspect that this is your idea of How The World Ought To Be.

"No, Buck. It was all my fault, and I'm so sorry."

"OK," he said. "You're sorry, and I forgive you. Can that be the end of it?"

Not quite. Chloe remembers that there's another man in the house, her father. She'll have to run upstairs and apologize to him, too, and then to thank him for accepting her acceptance of all blame.

"I was such a fool," she tells him.

"You ought to thank me," he says.

"That's for sure," she says.

Aaand, scene.

Chloe heads back downstairs to grovel some more and go for a walk with Buck.

Rayford heard the front door shut, then knelt by his bed. He prayed Chloe and Buck would be good for each other, regardless of what the future held for them. Even if they became only good friends, he would be grateful for that.

That's nice. I've got two teenage daughters and I can relate. But this exemplary prayer is a reminder that throughout this interlude, all three of these characters are being held up as models and role models. The Good Christian Dad ought to, like Rayford, pray for his daughter while distrusting her, belittling her opinions and conspiring with the man who appears to be two-timing her. The Good Christian Young Man ought to be, like Buck, stern and parental in his conquest of his intended. And the Good Christian Young Woman ought to be, like Chloe, submissive, distraught and humiliated.

The only good news here for the GCYW is that, if everyone else in this scenario plays their part as advised by the authors, at least she won't have to worry about faking the tears and humiliation.

The night was nippy but clear as midnight approached. "Buck," Chloe said as they turned a corner to wend their way through the fashionable Arlington Heights subdivision. "I just want to say again how –"

Buck stopped and snagged Chloe's jacket sleeve.

"Chloe, don't. We've got only seven years. We can't live in the past. We've both stumbled this weekend, and we've apologized, so let's be done with it."

They haven't actually both apologized, of course, but what's strangest here is how orderly and serene the neighborhood is after dark. Weren't we told in the previous book that the now-RTC-less suburbs had become an anarchic, crime-ridden cesspool of unbridled sin? The authors maintain, after all, that God withdrew his spirit from the world along with all of his chosen people, leaving behind a conscienceless world that ought to resemble Gomorrah on a bad night. The reprobate unsaved left behind surely can't be capable of decency and civil behavior — I mean, these people don't even believe in Hell, and without the fear of Hell, what possible motive could there be for decency or goodness? So where are the roving bands of gay, secular-humanist, intellectual

The important detail here, however, is that Buck grabs Chloe's jacket but scrupulously avoids touching her. This is a family friendly evangelical novel. Massive death and bloody violence are OK, but there will be no premarital touching. GCYW don't touch.

The chastened, humble Chloe now knows her place and thus no longer asks prying questions about Buck's unnecessarily secret trip to New York. That leaves them little to discuss except the mystery of the flowers — which they both assume must have come from Bruce. (There are only five people who matter in this world, so if they didn't come from Buck, Rayford or Nicolae, they must have come from Bruce.)

They both find this awkward, but they're not as creeped-out as they ought to be. Anonymous flowers are kind of weirdly stalker-ish in their own right, but anonymous flowers from an older man, who's also your pastor, who also just offered you a job, and who lost his wife and children less than a month ago — well that's pretty much off-the-charts on the creepy scale. Chloe, though, just sees it as kind of sad:

"I don't want to hurt him. I can't tell him that I don't think of him in that way. You know this all has to just be a reaction to his loss. Like he's on the rebound."

You know, the five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and younger women.

"I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a wife," Buck said.

"And kids."


"You told me once that you were never serious about anyone."

Speaking of awkward and creepy, we've now segued into several pages of Buck and Chloe discussing their romantic histories — or, rather, their almost total lack thereof.

"One girl, a year ahead of me in grad school, dumped me because I was too slow to make a move on her."


"Guess I'm a little old-fashioned that way."

"That's encouraging."

"I lost whatever feeling I had for her real quick."

This is astonishingly similar to the madonna/whore complex conservative columnist Ross Douthat commends himself for in his book Tropic of Privilege:

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend's
parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon
drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to
reach this point — "Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they
want?" she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn't sure
what to say, but then I wasn't sure this was what I wanted. My throat
was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink
pajamas, threatened my ability to. I was supposed to be excited, but I
was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole
business … and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the
venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and
whispered — "You know, I'm on the pill. …"

That's a quagmire of self-loathing transformed into self-adulation by projecting it onto women — any woman and all women. The end result is an attitude in which Buck/Douthat detests any woman so dirty and vile as to express sexual attraction toward a guy like him.

Chloe, weirdly, finds this pathology "encouraging." I'm not sure I can follow the logic of that. I think it means she's glad that her utter lack of sexual attraction toward Buck won't be an obstacle to any potential relationship.

It's kind of like Will & Grace, only he's a misogynist instead of a homosexual. So that's OK then.

"Would you rather hear that I have all kinds of experience because I'm such a cool guy, or that I'm a virgin?" Buck asks her, tragically omitting any third option in which we might be spared hearing about either one.

"That's a no-brainer. Definitely the latter."

"Bingo," Buck said softly, more from embarrassment than from braggadocio.

"Wow," Chloe said. "That's something to be proud of these days."

I'm not objecting to the author's goal here (like I said, I have two teenage daughters), but I don't think this is a promising or plausible approach. "Hey, kids, virginity is cool!" seems unlikely to be persuasive or effective. Particularly when the spokesman is a total tool like Buck Williams.

But the authors haven't given themselves many other options. Once you've instructed young women that they're supposed to be submissive, subservient, humiliated and distraught, you can't very well expect them to rely on self-respect.

It doesn't help that Buck immediately explains that he had plenty of "opportunities" and that he "ran in pretty fast circles."

"You think God was protecting you?" Chloe asks.

Protecting him? Doesn't it sound more like God was protecting that poor woman a year ahead of him in grad school?

"I never thought of it that way, but it very well could be. I've never had to worry about disease and all the emotional stuff that goes with intimate relationships."

Got that kids? If you're not still a virgin, then not only are you a bad, dirty person, but it also means that God never loved you enough to protect you from ruin.

The authors have to know that this is what such an idea conveys. They've probably, like me, witnessed dozens of evangelical youth-group sex lectures in which the speaker made this very argument until all the "bad" kids were in tears.

Let me state this as directly as I can. If you are talking to a bunch of teenagers about "sex and morality and all of that" and some of them begin to cry, this is not a sign that you're "really getting through to these kids." This is a sign that you're a cruel jackass and you need to stop talking.

Now it's Chloe's turn to reassure Buck that she, too, was protected by God and is unspoiled and pure — just the way he likes 'em.

"My boyfriends in high school, and my boyfriend my freshman year at Stanford and I were not models of, what did my mother call it, propriety? But I'm happy to say we never had sex."

We should note here that Tribulation Force was written in 1996, before Ken Star subjected America to a national debate over whether that really counts (or that, or there). And given the authors' general bewilderment on this subject, I'm sure they couldn't even imagine the realm of TV (technical virginity) that has predictably evolved among horny teens raised in evangelical and Catholic subcultures obsessed with the preservation of intact hymens and abstinence from the use of contraception.

Our young couple are delighted to learn of their shared virginity, which allows them to dream of a future together in which, one day, after they are married, they can enjoy that magic moment in which Buck again sits back, suppressing his laughter, as Chloe again buries her face in her hands, humiliated and distraught.

Chloe chuckled. "What are the odds that two unmarried people are taking a walk at midnight in America and both of them are virgins?"

"Especially after all the Christians were taken away."

"Amazing," she said. "But you want to talk about something else."

"Do I!"

And here, for once, I wholeheartedly agree with Buck Williams.

Buck chastely deposits Chloe back home, leaving her with this little nugget of sweet talk:

"I've really got to get going," Buck said. "I'm expecting a response from New York on my article tomorrow morning, and I want to be awake enough to interact."

And that leaves us only the final debriefing with Dad:

"You have a good talk?"

"Yeah. Buck is incredible."

"He kiss you?"

"No! Dad!"

"Hold hands?"

"No! Now stop it! We just talked. You wouldn't believe the offer he got today."

In context, that segue seems potentially misleading — but of course she doesn't mean an offer he got from her, she means the one he got from Nicolae. Apparently Buck finally realized there had been no reason to be cryptic and secretive about his day in New York and so, once seeming evasive would no longer make her suspicious, he told her all about it.

Chloe and Rayford discuss the Bruce Situation and then, blessedly, they all go to bed and we are, at long last, done with this dismally failing attempt at romantic comedy.

So finally we can get back to what the authors do best: a dismally failing attempt at spy thrillers.

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