TF: Menacing flowers

TF: Menacing flowers June 29, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 243-250

So, the flowers.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have given us a global epic with a smaller cast than that of Gilligan's Island, so the list of suspects for this anonymous bouquet is pretty short. If it wasn't Buck, Rayford or Bruce who sent them, then it had to be Nicolae or Hattie — or Nicolae and Hattie.

Rayford has already figured that much out:

Rayford was beginning to wonder whether Hattie Durham had had anything to do with Chloe's flowers, but he wasn't going to suggest that to his daughter. What kind of crazy idea would have gone through Hattie's mind to spur such an act?

In just a few pages we will learn of the method to Hattie's madness, discovering that the flowers were her harebrained scheme — carried out with the evident support and approval of the Antichrist himself. We learn this from Leonard Gustafson, the president of Pan-Continental Airlines and the latest in a long string of characters introduced to praise Rayford.

It's about time for another reminder that Jerry Jenkins operates a writing school, the "Christian Writers Guild." I have not paid the $149 annual membership fee or for Jenkins' $3,900 "Craftsman Level" instruction course, so I cannot say for sure what his students learn. But it doesn't seem to be the usual content of a typical writing workshop. The cardinal cliché of all such workshops — "Show, don't tell" — is clearly not a part of Jenkins' curriculum. Nor is Cliché No. 2: "Writing is re-writing."

That these are clichés does not make them untrue.

If I were conducting a writing workshop, I might select this passage from page 244 of Tribulation Force as an exercise for the class on the importance of rewriting and revision:

Wednesday morning in Earl Halliday's office at O'Hare, Rayford was surprised to find the president of Pan-Con himself, Leonard Gustafson. He had met Gustafson twice before. Rayford should have known something was up when he got off the elevator on the lower level. The place looked different. Desks were neater, neckties were tied, people looked busier, clutter and mess had been swept out of sight. People raised their eyebrows knowingly at Rayford as he strode toward Earl's office.

Gustafson, former military, was shorter than Rayford and thinner than Earl, but his mere presence was too big for Earl's little office.

Those seven sentences aren't all bad, they're just not in the right order. It's the sort of thing that would have been easy to fix had Jenkins re-read or re-written anything in this hastily typed first draft of a novel. His apparent failure or refusal to do any such re-reading or re-writing is careless. It shows he doesn't care — not about his own writing and certainly not about his readers. Such carelessness in composing a book to be marketed and sold at full price is, I think, a kind of fraud. It's a form of lying and of stealing — both sins, last time I checked. Maybe it's not as flagrant or deliberate a scam as the $3,900 "craftsman level" courses from his writer's guild, but still a rip-off. It's wrong.

As we learn more about Leonard Gustafson we find little to support that initial assertion that "his mere presence" could fill a room. He's indistinguishable from Stanton Bailey in his "some kind of halitosis problem, eh?" mode — a glad-handing, back-slapping, Babbitish buffoon.

Whenever Bailey is portrayed in this clown mode it's because Jenkins is trying to make Buck seem smarter by comparison. Gustafson plays a similar role here. Jenkins doesn't quite grasp that such clownishness undermines Gustafson's other intended function here — heaping praise on Rayford:

As Rayford entered, Gustafson leaped to his feet … and pumped Rayford's hand. "Steele, man, how are you?" he said, pointing to a chair as if this were his office. "… I just wanted to be here and congratulate you … You had a remarkable, no, a stellar career with Pan-Con, and we'll miss you, but we're proud of you."

Rayford, like Buck, is not one to receive a compliment graciously. Our heroes regard such praise as their self-evident due, so whenever another remarks on their "stellar" qualities, they respond with surly suspicion. "Is the news release already written?" is his first reply, followed by things like "So I couldn't turn this down if I wanted to?"

Gustafson sat, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. "Earl told me you had some misgivings. Don't make the biggest mistake of your life, Rayford. You want this. You know you want this. It's here for the taking. Take it. I'd take it. Earl would take it. Anyone else on the list would die for it."

"It's too late to make the biggest mistake of my life," Rayford said.

And again, that might read smoothly if Jenkins had just bothered to get those sentences in the right order. But as it is, he's inserted seven sentences in between Gustafson's comment — "Don't make the biggest mistake of your life" — and Rayford's retort.

"What's that?" Gustafson said, but Rayford saw Earl touch his arm, as if reminding him he was dealing with a religious fanatic who believed he had missed a chance to be in heaven. "Oh, yeah, that. Well, I mean since then," Gustafson added.

That response, I think, answers Rayford's earlier question as to whether there was any possibility of his turning down this job. Here you have an airline pilot ruefully lamenting that he missed his chance to join his wife and son in heaven. Two billion people have disappeared and Rayford desperately wishes he had been among them. Would you want that guy at the controls on your next flight? And is there any reason to think that Earl and Gustafson shouldn't interpret this morose regret as a sign of depression or even of suicidal thoughts? You'd think such comments would disqualify Rayford from the Air Force One gig, grounding him at least until he completed some kind of mandatory therapy.

"Mr. Gustafson, how does Nicolae Carpathia tell the president of the United States who should pilot his plane?"

"I don't know! Who cares? Politics is politics, whether it's the Dems and the Repubs in this country or Labor and the Bolsheviks somewhere else. … But everybody loves Carpathia. He seems above all the politics. If I had to guess, the president is letting him use the new 'five-seven just because he likes him."

Yeah, Rayford thought, and I'm the Easter bunny.

To say that Jenkins has a tin ear for sarcasm would be like saying the Great Wall of China is long. But Rayford's stale comment makes more sense than whatever it is Gustafson is babbling about there. Who says "the Dems and the Repubs"? And more to the point, what's all this talk of "politics" — hasn't Nicolae already secretly established his OWG? (The phrase "everybody loves Carpathia," however, does make me wish someone would remix scenes from the Left Behind movies, editing in a laff-track after every line Nicolae says.)

Rayford, still refusing to take yes for an answer, reminds his bosses of the blemish on his record — the religious harassment complaint filed against him by his sometime first officer Nicholas Edwards.

Gustafson smiled knowingly. "A complaint? I know nothing of a complaint."

And then he explains that Edwards was suddenly promoted to
captain, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. "Nice, huh?" Gustafson said.

And here I'm simply confused — in part, I'm confused that Rayford doesn't also seem confused. The previous evening, not 12 hours ago, he'd prayed for guidance and gotten caught up in religious ecstasy, after which he learned that his own daughter and his trusted pastor had, in that transcendent moment, received "direct leading" from God (whatever that means) that he should accept this job. Rayford doesn't believe that such a clear divine mandate requires any logical support, but his daughter also offered that too, laying out arguments for why he should accept the job that Rayford was unable to counter.

Yet none of that seems to have made Rayford any more receptive to the position. His conversation here shows him to be as combatively hostile as ever to the offer. Gustafson cheerfully shrugs off that hostility, explaining the elaborate machinations that have been employed to ensure that Rayford receives — and accepts — the job.

So Rayford now knows that the Antichrist is conspiring for him to get the job — manipulating top airline executives and even the president of the United States to ensure that he gets it. At the same time, Bruce and Chloe insist that the Holy Spirit told them it is God's will for Rayford to take the job.

It would seem, then, that Rayford only has two options. Either he can just accept his role as prophecy's plaything and do what both cosmic forces demand of him, or else he should reject the "direct leading" that Bruce and Chloe claim to have received as something not truly from God.

But Rayford does neither of these. He does not doubt that his taking the job is God's will, but he still stubbornly resists the offer even as, Jenkins says, he "could see his choices disappearing."

And maybe there's something admirable in such obtuse stubbornness. Maybe it's meta-Rayford's attempt to assert his autonomy in the face of the cruelly deterministic fate laid out for him by the authors and their capricious god. Faced with such a plot and a universe in which the Devil and the Almighty jointly conspire to ensure he has no freedom and no choice, maybe Rayford's only hope is to pretend he does — to cling to the illusion that he can say no to the prophecies and the divine decrees that rule all human fate.

Or not.

In any case, after several pages of this Rayford begins to wear down:

"At the very least, and I'm still not saying I'll take it, I would have to be headquartered in Chicago."

Gustafson grimaced and shook his head. "Earl told me that. I don't get it. I would think you'd want to be out of here, away from the memories of your wife and other daughter."


"Yeah, the college boy."

Like I said, Gustafson is a buffoon. (And, like everyone else, he remains oblivious to the glaringly obvious pattern of the missing children.) That's necessary. The Bad Guys in these books have to be shown to be manipulative because they're the Bad Guys. But they can't be shown to be effectively manipulative, because that would seem exculpatory for those they manage to manipulate and deceive and nothing can be allowed to make the damned seem anything less than wholly deserving of eternal torturous damnation. Thus Gustafson and even Nicolae himself must be shown to be inept manipulators.

Which brings us to the least ept attempt at manipulation so far:

"Anyway," Gustafson said, "you could get your daughter away from whoever might be stalking her, and –"


"– and you could get yourself a nice place outside D.C."

"Stalking her?"

"Well, maybe it's not that obvious yet, Rayford, but I sure as blazes wouldn't want my daughter to be hearing from somebody anonymously. I don't care what they were sending."

"But how did you –?"

"I mean, Rayford, you'd never forgive yourself if something happened to that little girl and you had a chance to get her away from whoever is threatening her."

The anonymous flowers in the trash, it turns out, are Nicolae's best attempt at a horse's head in the bedsheets. Nice family you got there, Steele … be a real shame if someone sent them flowers. (It gets even more intimidating in the pages ahead — anonymous candy arrives.)

"Only three people, besides whoever sent those, even know she got them," Rayford says, barely refraining from mentioning that those three people are the members of a secretive anti-Antichrist society. "How did you find out?"

To which the buffoon can only reply, "I don't remember."

It's not really surprising that the forces of the Antichrist should prove this incompetent. To portray an effective Antichrist would require an idea of what an Antichrist might want, of what it is he might be for and against. The Antichrist, by definition and by etymology, should want the opposite of whatever the Christ wants — should be for whatever the Christ is against and against whatever the Christ is for.

If you have no idea what the Christ might want or what the Christ might be for or against, then your Antichrist likely won't have much of a compelling agenda either. He'll just sort of flail around, sending anonymous flowers and acting like a buffoon.

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