Sunday, September 19, 2004

Video Game Salvation, or Tom Clancy For Christians

Apocalypse Dawn, by Mel Odom, Read by Steve Sever, Tyndale Audio, 2003

Just when you thought there was no worse novel series than the Left Behind books, along comes a spin-off. The first book in this series, Apocalypse Dawn, is written by pocket paper back schlockmeister, Mel Odom, a man who’s spent his career penning serializations of teen TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Odom also has an unremarkable string of paperback fantasy novels and some Hollywood work transcribing the script for the Vin Diesel vehicle, XXX, into a book.

In that sense he’s almost the equal of Jerry B. Jenkins whose own writing history is that of a pulp typist until he was selected from other grade Z writers to give shape to Tim LaHaye’s fervid wish to destroy the world. (For an idea of how highly LaHaye rates Jenkins’ work, note that on the adult Left Behind novels it is the preacher who gets top billing, but on the children’s effluvia from the same series, LaHaye’s content to give Jenkins the top spot.)

Mel Odom is unencumbered by LaHaye in his series, though the book retains that particularly paranoid view of how poor and persecuted Christians are, even in that bastion of atheism and secular enlightenment views, the U.S. military. Despite the mockery of religion by everyone in any top position, this book is one long fetishization of the military. There is a Tom Clancy like desperate bid for authenticity by including all sorts of extraneous details such as informing us during a firefight that the bullets tearing into the soil all around the hero are “steel-jacketed.” Thanks. I didn’t think machine gun fire was really dangerous until I read that. I’d always kind of figured it involved bullets made of melted down candy-corns.

It goes on and on during the battle scenes, slowing down the action to provide this kind of unnecessary hyper-detailing. Do we care if our hero, Samuel Adams “Goose” Gander (I shit you not), is being fired upon by Syrians carrying “Chinese-made AK-47s”? Would the fact that they were Russian made have made us worry more or less? I’m not an aficionado of military novels, so I don’t know if this kind of thing enhances the enjoyment of the reading. If Tom Clancy’s bank account is any indicator, it must, though I’m damned if I can understand why.

But, par for the course in any Left Behind book, Apocalypse Dawn is filled with unlikely plot twists (not counting the ones including Revelation-inspired deus ex machinas), geopolitical shenanigans that defy even the most fantastic incredulity, and poorly drawn characters that include protagonists who exist as nothing more than tough guy dream projections of the author. Army Ranger protagonist, Goose, is one of those typical Hollywood military heroes who manages to survive something along the lines of six pitched close encounter gun battles, a knife fight with a fellow soldier, several mortar shellings, SCUD missile attacks, and the crashings of multiple Black Hawk helicopters all around him (when their pilots are raptured up, of course). And he does all this in one day.

There are three plotlines in this first book of the series. One follows Goose as his Army Rangers fight alongside U.N. peacekeeping troops and the Turkish Army. Who are they fighting? Syria. Why is Syria attacking Turkey? A student of the regional history could give you several plausible scenarios in which Kurdish rebels from either country provoked the battles between the nations as a way of destabilizing the regimes as part of their grand plan to establish an independent Kurdistan.

But that’s not the way Left Behind books work. The Syrian attack is explained this way. Israel, having become ultra-wealthy after going big time into the produce business thanks to their discovery of a miracle fertilizer, uses their newfound riches to buy up tons of military equipment. This shift in the power balances in the Middle East, this sudden surge in strength by an enemy in their midst doesn’t convince the Arab nations that they need to ally themselves to offset this power. No. Because Israel has gotten stronger and richer than all these oil-producing states put together, Syria decides their best course of action is to launch a military assault against Turkey.

You can be forgiven for not following that argument. Christian writers, after all, aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

The second plotline follows Goose’s family back home as they deal with him being involved suddenly in a war zone, as his seventeen-year-old stepson deals with a powerfully immature sibling rivalry against Goose’s own five-year-old son, and as his wife, a military social worker, counsels an abused child of a drunken private. These story elements are both unimaginably dull and frankly enraging. The reader of this book, Steve Sever, portrays whining grief stricken people with such an annoying voice you hope either these people are good enough to be raptured or unlucky enough to be rundown by a good Christian’s suddenly driverless vehicle. No such luck.

The third plotline follows Chaplan Delroy Heart and introduces the most ridiculous plot development to date. The ship minister on the U.S.S. Wasp, Delroy is flown, post-rapture, back to Washington D.C. to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff that God is behind all the mysterious disappearances and not space aliens nor the Russians. After unsuccessfully stating his case and being viciously mocked by one of the Chiefs, Delroy repairs to a Pentagon restroom where he is attacked by a scale-skinned, fork tongued demon.

I’m not kidding.

And when the Chief of Staff who just mocked Delroy happens to pop into the very same restroom and spot the demon, who promptly disappears, Delroy repeats to him that the disappearances are not the work of aliens. After seeing a lizard headed biped dematerialize, why would anyone doubt that line of reasoning?

There is so much ridiculousness in this one single book that it’s hard to know exactly what to focus on. It’s like going to a fashion show and trying to spot all the anorexics. There simply isn’t enough time in the day.

Like the Left Behind books, Apocalypse Dawn includes so much bad writing from just a technical standpoint there’s a laugh on nearly every page. We are treated to obvious observations like this description of troops in the desert: “The body’s normal temperature of 98.6 was cooler than the ground.” That body temperature tip, I’m going to remember that. We are told “Ankara was Turkey’s capital,” because only declarative information can apparently be understood by the series’ mouthbreathing readership. Contextual information might get lost.

In the middle of SCUD missile attacks, Goose has time to stop and reflect upon the various news agencies in this shanty town near the border, has time to think about how war had effected business and politics (and to drop the bombshell revelation that businesses and politicians had actually gotten involved in war sometime recently — the shock!), about what’s going on in local politics in Romania, and what was on the menu at a now blown up restaurant. Then another missile comes in! Whew. Back to those cogitations. While Goose’s wife is clinging desperately to the hand of twelve-year-old Jerry Fletcher, who has just fallen off the roof of a building, she reminisces: “Bill had suggested that was why idolatry had sprung up. That man had a self-defeating need to reach out to things that didn’t exist, rather than admit God’s love was there for them.”

Apart from the stunning lack of logical consistency in that argument, is this what crosses your mind as your arm is about to be ripped out of the socket or you’re about to be pulled over a roof edge to your death or you’re about to drop a child to his death? How do these characters brains work exactly?

Odom’s worst writing is metaphoric though. He’s full of odd little bits such as: “Like mercury rolling across a flat table at room temperature.” That’s definitely an image I’ll never forget. People who are angry are always described as having a “wild animal” inside them. I kept waiting for the more direct introduction to these werewolves, but to no avail. Soldiers under a grenade attack are described as having been blown “from the door like flaming puppets.” I’ve seen a number of puppet shows, even avant garde ones in Prague, but I have to say I’ve never seen puppets on fire being tossed about. “For a moment the thought that she should get up from the table and just walk away bumped gently through Danielle’s mind like a butterfly banging against a glass window.” What tortured prose. “Guilt rose up and smothered Joey like one of Grandma Gander’s fuzzy quilts.” Yowza, killer quilts. “Tears burned at the back of Joey’s eyes.” Back of his eyes? In his skull? Are their tear ducts back there? Is this the back of the outside of the eye or are tears burning at the back of the inside of Joey’s eyes? So many questions prompted by such bad writing.

But Odom’s best argument, one that surely wouldn’t have passed the LaHaye rhetoric gauge was this choice bit of background about Goose we’re treated to as he gets a chill after a soldier is raptured up right under his nose:

The superstitious paranoia that Goose had grown up with as a child, part of that feeling stemming from stories of the Old Testament and part of it from tall tales of ghosts and monsters that lived in the Okeefenokee Swamp...

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but did Odom, in a Christian novel, just say that Old Testament stories lead to paranoia and superstition? How did that sit with Tim LaHaye when he read it, I wonder. You’d almost think Odom was just shoehorning all that Bible folderol into one of his regular tripe airplane books. It makes it sound like the whole thing is just a scam.

And it is, in a literary sense. The almost-exciting battle climax of the novel is resolved not through human cunning or battlefield prowess, but through a miracle. The soldiers, pursued by the Syrians, stop, kneel, and recite the 23rd Psalm, which encourages God to drop a mountain on those swarthy devils. I kid you not.

The narrator of this book has a relentless monotone that simply barrels immediately on. His rendering of the text is dry and constantly rushing to get more in. Expository passages could be slower read, but the pace of the story only comes to life when the Rangers are under fire. Actually, it is only when carnage begins that the readers starts to warm to his material and reads less robotic. He is also unfamiliar with Mediterranean pronunciation. Chaim (phonetically Hi-yim, with hard throaty hocking H) is Kime, Sumer (Soomair) is Summer, Icarus (Ick-a-rus) is Eyecrust. His accents, if possible, are worse than his pronunciation. His Turkish soldier sounds like Inspector Clouseau.

Like some other books on tape, there are all kinds of audio tweaking, people’s voices on radio transmissions being tinny and sometimes crackly. At first, I thought the best part was when characters think to themselves. At this point, the reader’s voice goes all echo chamber-y. Sometimes this happens when the thought is only one single word or a name. But even better is when groups of soldiers respond to a command with a hearty “Yes, sir!” At this point, there is a multi-track of Sever’s voice, one tacked on top of another for a crowd sound. The group “Yes, sir!” is only topped in its hystericality by a group of recently baptized soldiers who sing a hymn in the desert. (Why do white Christians sound so morbid in their hymn singing?) It was like a Gregorian funeral dirge. I actually felt embarrassed for everyone involved in the production. It was that bad. It’s like the people in the control booth wanted to sweeten the bland reading with all the weapons in their post-production arsenal. I hoped when something frightening would happen theremin music would cue up, but no such luck. It wouldn’t have helped though. You can pour all the perfume on a turd you want, but you can’t change its stink.

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