L.B.: Worlds collide

L.B.: Worlds collide November 1, 2015

(Originally posted November 23, 2007. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)

Left Behind, pp. 364-365

There’s a bit of a lesson in the first meeting of our two heroes, Buck Williams and Rayford Steele. It’s a fine portrait of the insecure alpha male in his native habitat. Rayford seems so eager to strike a dominant posture that I was afraid he was about to start peeing on trees or mounting somebody:

“He’s with us,” Rayford told the woman at the desk. He shook Buck’s hand. “So you’re the writer for Global Weekly who was on my plane.”

As always, the authors intend Rayford’s perspective to be trustworthy and reliable, but that’s not really possible with a character as self-absorbed and un-self-aware (in the worst sense) as he is. This is off-putting in Left Behind because it’s not possible for readers to share the authors’ insistence that Rayford’s self-importance is deserved and appropriate. But maybe in a sense, by sharing their character’s delusion and presenting us with this unreliable reliable narrative perspective, the authors have unintentionally created a new kind of meta-fictional device that goes beyond Nabokov’s wildest dreams.

In any case, I love that membership in the Pan-Con Club (fremder!) is something that Rayford flaunts like a hard-earned trophy. “He’s with us,” he says. Don’t worry, my young friend, I have pull. Stick with me and I can get you into traveler’s lounges at airports all over the country. I’d bet he’s the same way with his membership in the Columbia Record House. (“I know people, my friend. I can get you eight CDs for a penny.”)

“What do you want to interview me about?” he asks Buck:

“Your take on the disappearances. I’m doing a cover story on the theories behind what happened, and it would be good to get your perspective as a professional and as someone who was right in the middle of the turmoil when it happened.”What an opportunity! Rayford thought. “Happy to,” he said. “You can join us for dinner then?”

“You bet,” Buck said. “And this is your daughter?”

While Rayford is desperately establishing his alpha-male status, Buck just plays along. He doesn’t undermine the pilot’s home-turf advantage by pulling out the Pan-Con Club ID that a frequent flier like him is sure to have. And he strokes Rayford’s ego, playing to his sense of status “as a professional” and describing him as being “right in the middle of the turmoil” when, in fact, they were both in the middle of nowhere, somewhere over the Atlantic when The Event occurred. While Rayford continues trying to maintain control — “join us for dinner?” — Buck isn’t interested in that game. He’s playing a game of his own — “This is your daughter?”

Later, as we revisit this scene from Buck’s perspective, he makes this clearer:

He had been tempted to tell Captain Steele that, as of the next day, he would no longer be just a writer but would become executive editor. But he feared that would sound like bragging, not complaining, so he had said nothing.

The context there is that he’d have been perfectly comfortable bragging to Rayford, but he didn’t want to sound like he was bragging in front of Chloe. It’s because she’s standing there that he circumspectly avoids playing the Who’s More Important? game with Rayford.

So the lesson here for alpha-male executive types like Rayford is this: While you’re busy posturing to establish your dominance, the other guy is probably trying to figure out how to nail your daughter. So who’s really the alpha-male here?*

The larger problem with this scene is that this isn’t how strangers would be introducing themselves a week after The Event. They would still be in the throes of that shared trauma and thus wouldn’t really be meeting as strangers.

There would be, post-Event, some kind of ritualized exchange that would acknowledge this common ground of loss and bewilderment, some way of asking and answering the “where were you when?” and “who did you lose?” questions. “This is my daughter, Chloe,” would be followed, inevitably and involuntarily, by “she’s all I have left after her mother and young brother vanished.” And Buck would respond by telling Rayford about his missing sister-in-law and the niece and nephew whose absence was still a raw wound that “tugged at his heart almost constantly.” Recognizing the imbalance between their respective losses, and feeling again the pangs of survivor’s guilt, Buck would awkwardly express his sympathies to the Steeles, reciting the inadequate stock phrases he would have come to rely on after dozens of such conversations during the past week.

None of that happens here, of course. Instead we just get, “Hi, I’m a very important airline captain.” And, “Hi, I’m the GIRAT, who’s the babe?”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I don’t know enough about the Tim/Jerry dynamic to speculate on this as subtext, but one has to wonder. They both must be aware, at some level, that their dual protagonists are thinly veiled Mary Sue surrogates. This places Jenkins in the awkward position of having to write scenes in which his stand-in is “courting” the daughter of LaHaye’s stand-in. I get this picture of Jenkins sitting uncomfortably in the living room, fidgeting with a corsage in a plastic container as LaHaye asks him pointed questions about his “intentions.”


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