NRA: The running man

NRA: The running man December 14, 2012

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 92-96

Buck Williams wants something.

That’s rare in these books. Part of what makes our heroes so hard to like — apart from their acting like jerks most of the time — is that for huge chunks of this series they don’t seem to want anything. That makes it difficult for readers to understand them. And it makes it impossible for us to cheer them on, hoping that they succeed in getting what they want.

Those listless sections just blandly unfold with events happening to Buck and Rayford, or happening near them, or on TV screens in front of them. But the protagonists don’t do anything themselves because there’s nothing they want.

Here, Buck wants something. He wants to find Chloe.

That gives this chapter a momentum and a life that’s usually lacking in these books. It’s the one big thing that Jerry Jenkins gets right in this chapter that allows readers to hurdle past all the other things here, large and small, that he gets horribly wrong.

Just consider the basic skeleton of this scene. We have a man wandering through the still-burning ruins of a former city, trying to find his wife. He does not know where she is or how badly she may be injured. He doesn’t know what he will do if he finds her, but he has to find her.

That “has to” makes a difference between reading this chapter and slogging through the four that came before it.

This basic outline works. Dozens of different short stories could be written based on this basic premise. It could be the basis for an action movie or for an art film. It could be the setting for an action-packed first-person-shooter video game (just add zombies) or for a Myst-like puzzle game (just add fragments of a cryptic diary).

For once we have a scene in which the basic dramatic situation is actually dramatic. For once we can — at least briefly — understand Buck Williams.

This is still a Left Behind novel, of course, and so Jenkins sets about sabotaging this scenario at every turn. And even if the underlying generic scenario is sound, we don’t enter into it generically. We already know too much else about Buck and about the absurd nonradioactive-nuclear sorta-destruction of Chicago to be fully caught up in the scene. But Buck finally wants something, and so readers can finally want something too.

The initial set-up for this was pretty solid. Chloe was driving Buck’s fancy new Range Rover, racing to escape Chicago before the bombs fell. Buck was on the phone with her when suddenly:

He heard an explosion, tires squealing, a scream, and then silence.

That’s good stuff. If this were a TV show, that would work as the cliffhanger end of part 1 of a big sweeps-week two-parter.

But that was all the way back on page 63, and Jenkins sapped all the urgency out of that set-up by giving us several more scenes in which Buck drives out to Loretta’s house, or calls his dad in Arizona, or does just about anything other than racing to the rescue.

The final scene in Chapter 4 drained a bit more of the tension out of this scenario as the cell phone he borrowed from Verna Zee rings:

Buck shouted “Hello! Chloe?” before he had even hit the receive button. His fingers were shaking so badly he nearly dropped the phone. He pushed the button and shouted, “Chloe?”

“No, Cameron, it’s Verna. But I just heard from the office that Chloe tried to reach you there.”

“Did somebody give her the number of this phone?”

“No. They didn’t know you had my phone.”

“I’m trying to call her now, Verna. The line is busy.”

“Keep trying, Cameron. She didn’t say where she was or how she was, but at least you know she’s alive.”

Finding out that Chloe is still alive lowers the stakes here. Jenkins doesn’t seem to realize that, as he’s more focused on who has which phone number. Throughout this chapter, he seems to have the impression that the details of phone-tag are more exciting than the details — largely omitted — of a man trying to make his way through a just-nuked city.

So Chapter 5 begins with all the excitement of Buck repeatedly pressing redial.

Suddenly his phone rang again.

“Chloe!”

“No, sorry, Cameron, it’s Verna again.”

“Verna, please! I’m trying to reach Chloe!”

Look again at that previous snippet of dialogue from the end of Chapter 4 and notice how kind Verna is being to Buck. Then keep in mind that Buck is, at this very moment, speaking on Verna’s cell phone, which she generously loaned him and which is now his only hope of finding Chloe since he’s just also wrecked Verna’s car, which she also generously loaned him.

Even here, as she’s calling to provide Buck with the very thing he desperately needs — a sense of where Chloe is — he still reflexively treats her like her very existence is a burden to him.

I can’t figure out what we’re supposed to make of this. If we look at Verna’s words and actions in these two chapters in isolation, then it seems like Jenkins is presenting the redemption of Verna Zee (redemption in the literary, not the theological sense). But if we judge by Buck’s reaction to her, then it seems we’re still supposed to view her as some kind of sensibly shod villain.

Verna says Chloe left a message with “somebody in our office.” (Didn’t everyone leave the office? Just let it go.) Chloe said she crashed “the other way on Lake Shore Drive.”

That’s not a very precise location, and Jenkins has Verna and Buck discuss the various possible meanings of “the other way” for half a page. But now at least Buck has a general sense of where Chloe might be. He has a reason to run and somewhere to run to, so he starts running.

Buck was in reasonably good shape for a man in his early thirties, but now his joints ached and his lungs pleaded for air as he sprinted to Chicago Avenue and headed east toward the lake.

Nothing heightens suspense like constant reminders from the author that he used to live in Chicago and knows his way around the city.

When he finally got to the Drive, he found it empty. He knew it was barricaded from the north at the Michigan Avenue exit. It had to have been blocked at the far south end too. Gasping, he hurdled the guardrail, jogged to the middle, heard the clicking of meaningless traffic lights, and raced across to the other side.

Yes, the streets are undamaged by the nuclear assault. The traffic lights are still functioning, and Jenkins’ post-nuclear Chicago basically seems to look just like pre-nuclear Chicago, but without all the cars and people. Just let it go.

He jogged south, knowing Chloe was alive but not knowing what he might find. The biggest question now, assuming Chloe didn’t have some life-threatening injury, was whether those print-outs of Bruce’s personal commentaries — or worse, the computer itself — might have fallen into the wrong hands. Surely, parts of that narrative were quite clear about Bruce’s belief that Nicolae Carpathia was the Antichrist.

I’m pretty sure that Nicolae is quite clear about Nicolae’s belief that he is the Antichrist, so I’m not sure what the worry is that he might end up reading Bruce’s notes. If anything, Nicolae would likely find Bruce’s manuscript reassuring, confirming that the “Tribulation Force” had no plans to disrupt his plans.

But Buck doesn’t just seem worried that Nicolae might get a hold of Bruce’s transcripts. He also seems worried that Bruce’s notes might wind up leaked to the public. The members of the Tribulation Force are very strange evangelists — people who regard their gospel as a closely guarded secret that must be kept from the unsaved world at all costs.

Buck keeps running, hitting redial over and over as he goes.

Finally, Chloe answered her phone.

Having not planned what to say, Buck found himself majoring on the majors. “Are you all right? Are you hurt? Where are you?” He hadn’t told her he loved her or that he was scared to death about her or that he was glad she was alive. He would assume she knew that until he could tell her later.

She sounded weak.

Chloe is badly hurt and still trapped in the wrecked SUV. She thinks he’s probably only a mile or so away.

This is where most versions of this story would have the searcher say something like, “You just hold on, I’ll be there soon,” before pushing on with their last ounce of strength, sprinting the final mile to the wrecked car. We would learn the details of the crash and what befell the victim upon his arrival.

But since we’re in the version of this story involving Buck Williams and told by Jerry Jenkins, Buck stops running and focuses on interviewing Chloe over the telephone.

This allows Jenkins to describe the same scene for us twice within the span of five pages. “Buck, the Range Rover seems to be stuck between a tree and a concrete abutment,” Chloe says on the phone here on page 97. “The Range Rover was lodged between the trunk and lower branches of a large tree and the concrete abutment,” we read later, when Buck arrives at the scene on page 102.

“I was doing about 60,” she said, “when I thought I saw an exit ramp. I took it, and that’s when I heard the bomb go off.”

“The bomb?”

“Yes, Buck, surely you know a bomb exploded in Chicago.”

One bomb? Buck thought. Maybe it was merciful she was out for all the bombs that followed.

And mercifully, Buck doesn’t have to tell her about all the bombs that followed while she was unconscious, because they apparently did so little damage to Chicago that she’ll never notice the difference.

Unfortunately, the bombs striking California at this point in our story don’t seem quite so ineffectual.

While Buck has been busily running across the pristine landscape of post-nuclear Chicago, Rayford Steele has been flying away from San Francisco. Jenkins inserted a brief, one-page Rayford scene smack in the middle of Buck’s run toward Chloe.

That kind of interruption can sometimes help to heighten the tension of a suspenseful scene, a kind of head-feint distraction that makes readers all the more anxious to get back to the first scene and find out what happens next.

Here, though, Jenkins is cutting away from the suspense of a traffic accident with a brief interruption off-handedly noting the death of a million people. Once we’re reminded of how high the stakes are in San Francisco, it’s hard to retain much concern for whatever might be at stake back on Lake Shore Drive.

Any remaining doubts Rayford Steele had about the incredible and instant power that Nicolae Carpathia wielded were eradicated a few minutes after the Condor 216 left the ground at San Francisco International. Through the privately bugged intercom he heard one of Carpathia’s aides ask, “Now, sir, on San Francisco?”

“Trigger,” came the whispered reply.

… [Rayford] and McCullum looked at each other as their earphones came alive with startled cries from the control tower. “Mayday! Mayday! We’re being attacked from the air!” The concussions knocked out communications, but Rayford knew the bombs themselves would easily take out that whole tower, not to mention the rest of the airport and who knew what portion of the surrounding area.

So everyone Rayford spoke to during his recent stop at that airport is now dead. He knew they would be killed, but he did nothing to warn them or to try in any way to save them.

Rayford didn’t know how much longer he could take being the devil’s own pilot.

Yes, Nicolae’s mass-murder is really beginning to annoy Rayford Steele.

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