‘Twas the Night Before: Chapters 1-4: Tom and Noella, Part One

As those of you who have been following Soon, and those of you familiar with the Left Behind series know, Jerry Jenkins tends to be a linear storyteller.  This happened, then that.  Then that, and that, and that.  Nothing wrong with the method–it’s a very effective one, especially with an action-based story, as Soon and the LB books purport to be.

But ‘Twas the Night Before is a parable, a romance.  And for this, Jenkins changes tactics.  We bounce back and forth between Noella and Tom’s blizzardy Black Friday at the Round-the-Clock diner downtown, and their meeting and courtship over the course of the past year.  Once we hit the Big Issue of Faith (in Santa), we go back to linear.

But hell, I’m ignoring all that.  Once I get Tom and Noella settled at Round-the-Clock, I’m going back in time and then moving us all the way back to the Black Friday blizzard with which we began.

So Tom and Noella meet up at the Round-the-Clock diner.  I know at least one reader has asked for Chicago details, so here goes: Tom has been working at the Tribune office, and Noella at Medill.  Round-the-Clock is on “Sheridan Road, a few blocks from Lake Shore Drive.”

Now, I don’t have to be a Chicago expert to know that it’s damn foolish to go out to a diner to have ONLY DRINKS during a BLIZZARD WITH ABANDONED CARS ON THE ROAD, even if it is your cutesy little weekly romantic Thing.  Once again, it is frakking Thanksgiving weekend.  Why aren’t they camped out at one of their homes to wait out the storm together?

But no, they are at a late-night diner, late at night, as they always are on Fridays.  They NEVER order food, only hot chocolate for Noella and coffee for Tom.  As a point in Tom’s favor, his generous tipping habit is highlighted once again.  Although, frankly, if all they ever order are drinks, they SHOULD tip generously.

Both the present and the past highlight the most annoying qualities of our Christmassy heroine: her emotional manipulation, controlling tendencies, and inability to take “no” for an answer.  (For the record, Tom’s faults are his classism and self-centeredness, but once again, I feel Noella comes off the worse of the two.)

At Round-the-Clock:

[Tom] had never been big on public displays of affection, but that didn’t stop Noella. …  She appeared so thrilled to see him that he felt as if she had cast a spotlight on him everyone had turned to watch.

He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned in for a peck, but she would have none of it.  She reached for him with both hands.  “Hi, sweetheart,” she said, pulling his face to hers and kissing him hard.  To anyone else it looked like a quick greeting, but he got the message when she brushed his lips with her tongue.

EWWWWWW

Seriously, I am not a prude, but EWWWWWW.

Jenkins, you are not to write snogging scenes, you hear me???  DO NOT WRITE THEM YOU CANNOT DO THEM.

Sorry, got distracted.  My major point is this: Noella is an emotionally manipulative jerk.  She knows that Tom is uncomfortable with this sort of thing, but she goes ahead and does it anyway.  Guess her feelings are just much more important than his.

This is a big theme of Noella’s life. 

AND NOW WE MAGICALLY TRAVEL BACK, ALL THE WAY BACK TO LAST YEAR…

Noella wants Famous Columnist Tom Douten to lecture for her students.  She calls him several times: no answer.  She sends e-mails.  Still no answer.  She sends him a long, handwritten letter on personalized stationary.  He writes a (mostly) very nice note back, politely declining.

THEN SHE DOES NOT TAKE THIS UNEQUIVOCAL “NO” FOR AN ANSWER.

Instead, she writes him ANOTHER letter.  At this point, she has been nagging at him (yet another prominent personality trait of hers) for SEVERAL MONTHS.

He writes her yet another “no” letter, but her nagging has worn him down, and he sits in on two classes.

Refreshingly, Tom is impressed by Noella’s teaching and editing styles, not just by her beauty.  He is so impressed, in fact, that he changes his mind and agrees to speak.  Which just goes to show that if you nag someone enough, he will eventually cave, right?

Not so refreshingly, Tom turns out to be a real bigot when it comes the educated.  We know this because Noella e-mails him ALMOST EVERY DAY before he speaks.  (Among other things, she wants to make posters with his headshot and throw him a reception beforehand.  This is presented as Noella “work[ing] hard,” but it sounds more like simpering fangirlishness to me.)

Anyway, during the course of the e-mail exchange, we learn that Tom…

…assumed her students were rich kids, materialists.  He assumed the faculty consisted of lazy, tenured, unpublished theorists–except for [Noella], of course.  He assumed the university administration had its own agenda and took advantage of staff.  He also assumed Northwestern suffered from Ivy League envy.

Nice.  Need I point out that Jenkins appears to share Tom’s attitude, since he makes a point of saying that Noella is the only faculty member who habitually puts in a full day’s work?

Now, being “over-educated” myself, I was fully prepared to take offense at Tom’s anti-education bias.  And I do, at least a bit.  However (and I can hardly believe I’m saying this), Jenkins actually succeeds at making this into part of an interesting character quirk.  Tom, you see, grew up working class on the South Side.  His father was an abusive alcoholic, his mother an enabler.  Now, Tom has worked his way into a very high income bracket, and his attitude towards money and class is–refreshingly!–confused:

1.  He drives an old car with a broken heater, yet grouses about the cold.

2.  He lives in the Carl Sandburg Village.  (Check out the video on this page.  It’s a 2-bed, 2-bath, which is what Tom has.  And look at that VIEW!)

3.  He “dresses like a student.”

4.  He’s embarrassed by his parents’ home, their lifestyle, their interests (such as professional wrestling).

5.  But he still hangs out with his childhood best friends.

Tom’s co-workers even give him grief about his attitude:

Colleagues accused him of affectation–dressing down–pretending to be a neighborhood guy even after reaching the pinnacle of his profession. … Flaunting wealth was so abhorrent to him that he had given away an expensive gift watch rather than appear to have bought it.

I’m sorry, but Tom’s colleagues are right.  THAT IS AFFECTATION.  Giving away something expensive, not because you dislike it, but solely because of What People Will Think, is pretty much the definition of affectation.

Hell, not that I mind.  In fact, I kinda love this attitude of Tom’s.  It’s like Tom (Meta-Tom?) doesn’t even know how he feels or what he really likes and wants.  It all makes this Jenkins hero so…so…

Human.

I know, right?  I don’t know if this is what Jenkins meant to do or not, but hey, whatever works.  I’ll take it.

To close for the day, a few words on Our Hero’s haircut from The Annoying Gary Noyer:

[Tom] got a “normal” haircut once a month.  Gary Noyer had an opinion on that: “Too short for a week and a half, nondescript for a week, then too long for another week and a half.”

So now we know that Gary keeps track of Tom’s hair length on a day-to-day basis.

That is entirely too much attention, methinks.

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Posted on December 7, 2011, in Books, Christmas, Twas the Night Before. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. On the note of the blizzard-I was here in Chicago for the last huge one. People got stuck on Lakeshore Drive for up to twelve hours, most abandoned their cars and some took refuge in the houses of people near the road. As one assumes by it’s name, it’s by the lake.

    And thus an absolutely horrible place to go in a blizzard.

  2. A “normal” hair cut? What’s being implied by those quote marks, exactly? That the hair cut is actually abnormal? Is it sneering at the fact that he only gets his hair cut once a month? Isn’t that what most people do? (The hair length descriptions make it sound like one should get one’s hair cut every week. O_o)

    Also, can one even become a journalist without going to college? Or is this set in the past?

    • It’s set in 1998. Tom actually makes a point of saying that his circumstances were unusual, and that you can’t really do what he did anymore.

    • I just want to add that I sympathise with Tom’s haircut. I hate going to the barber, and don’t care that much how my hair looks. So I usually ask for it to be cut short, and then I come back in two months later when it’s so long it’s really annoying me.

  3. Jenkins also seems to have a tin ear for what is appropriate behavior for people. He writes Rayford cheering on Buck, even though to all appearances Buck has shabbily treated his daughter, and he writes Buck being a nice guy even though he’s a snotty douchebag at times.

    No different here, it seems, with Tom and Noella.

    And what on earth is it with his idea of setting this book in a blizzard when by all rights Tom and Noella ought to be safely at home?!

  4. And I must add that the book doesn’t sound like it’s wholeheartedly agreeing with Tom’s anti-education attitude. Tom still has things to learn right now, all the criticism is of the form “Tom assumed…”.

    I have to say, thus far this book is actually acceptable. Not something I’d seriously pick up and read. The characters behave stupidly in face of a blizzard, but that’s just low level stupidity instead of the usual moral bankruptcy. I had expected it to be far worse when I voted for this. But perhaps this is not so bad. In the spirit of wintermass, perhaps we can ease up on Jenkins for a bit.

    This is of course assuming that the book doesn’t go off into the deep end once the belief in Santa and the inevitable belief in Jesus allagory shows up.

  5. So, it seems, the rule “Jenkins’ ability to make characters sympathetic is inversely proportionate to his intent to make them sympathetic” trumps “Jenkins makes female characters more sympathetic than male ones.”

    Likely the second rule is the result of the first.

    • I think there’s a general rule that when Jenkins tries to make a character sympathetic, they wind up sounding like dicks, and vice versa. Q.v. Buck versus ‘Sensible Shoes’ Verna, Michael Murphy versus his boss, the plantation buttons expert, etc.

      Also WTF on the restaurant being actually open if the weather’s that bad. Storms which close universities generally also tend to close businesses.

  6. I’m told that the profit margin on restaurant drinks is higher than on food, but I don’t know this for certain.

    Ah yes, the Hollywood version of interpersonal relations: pester someone for long enough, and they’ll give in to your demands. How romantic.

    Why do I think that Gary wants to encourage Tom to wear his hair flowing free down his back?

    Is there really anything about this diner meeting that wouldn’t work either at one of their homes, or at a restaurant near one of their homes?

    • Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like how RTCs understand the way God seems to do things. Pester humanity with mini-judgements (although never a judgement of “innocent”, for some reason…) that are code for “Please do the righteous things!”, and they’ll eventually cave in. Perhaps, then, it’s understandable that Jenkins would think that Wright doing this fits in with her (alleged) nobility of psyche. It’s literally the godly thing.

  7. Thus far — and that’s a big qualifier because the Santa Issue hasn’t materialized yet — this seems like a perfectly inoffensive little story. I rip into Jerry Jenkins as hard as anyone, but as long as he avoids big writing mistakes I can easily overlook his little ones.

    That said, I have a sinking feeling that this:

    but her nagging has worn him down

    is going to end up being the overarching theme of the whole book. In which case we’re in for an uncomfortable, chafing ride.

  8. To anyone else it looked like a quick greeting, but he got the message when she brushed his lips with her tongue.

    What message was he getting? “Thanks for wearing strawberry-flavored lip gloss”?

    There’s something very “Alice in Wonderland/Red Queen” about Tom Doubten…

    …assumed her students were rich kids, materialists. He assumed the faculty consisted of lazy, tenured, unpublished theorists–except for [Noella], of course. He assumed the university administration had its own agenda and took advantage of staff. He also assumed Northwestern suffered from Ivy League envy.

    Does Tom (or Jenkins) even understand how faculty gets tenure? It’s virtually impossible to get tenure at any instutition without being published. Or is the assumption that no one ever publishes anything after they get tenure?

    (I had a conversation with a vocal conservative who was very “anti-socialism”… except he really didn’t seem to know what “socialism” was, only that it was bad somehow. And unions. Unions were also bad, and part of socialsim. Because they were both liberal. I think Jenkins has the same degree of understanding: “tenure” means “bad”…)

    More Red Queen logic: the administration takes advantage of lazy, tenured staff. That must be one clever, hard-working administration to exploit staff they’re not allowed to fire!

    Colleagues accused him of affectation–dressing down–pretending to be a neighborhood guy even after reaching the pinnacle of his profession.

    First of all, how does a journalist at the pinnacle of their profession dress? It’s not like they’re rappers wearing gold chains studded with gems. Maybe I’m just used to seeing TV news anchors, but I didn’t think a jacket and tie was all that dressy. What’s dressing down from that? Jeans and a tank top? Wrist bracers and a furry loincloth? Sweat pants and a food-stained t-shirt?

    … Flaunting wealth was so abhorrent to him that he had given away an expensive gift watch rather than appear to have bought it.

    That makes sense. It’s always better to look like cheap by re-gifting nice things than wearing them. Although if he’s going to work in cut-offs and a sweatshirts, an expensive watch would look out of place.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy

    But ‘Twas the Night Before is a parable, a romance. And for this, Jenkins changes tactics. We bounce back and forth between Noella and Tom’s blizzardy Black Friday at the Round-the-Clock diner downtown, and their meeting and courtship over the course of the past year. Once we hit the Big Issue of Faith (in Santa), we go back to linear.

    “Bouncing back and forth” between two characters is difficult to pull off. You have to switch back and forth while keeping the reader’s interest and the story moving, without spending too much time on either character. Though the “bounce back and forth” going to linear once the two have met is a good structure in a “meeting” romance.

    Jenkins, you are not to write snogging scenes, you hear me??? DO NOT WRITE THEM YOU CANNOT DO THEM.

    This is Jerry “Buck” Jenkins, of Synchronized Cookie-Snarfing Erotica scene fame. Romance is NOT his strong point.

    I can’t write snogging or sex scenes either; the dodge I use when one comes up is to go for the inadvertent comedy-of-errors angle. Humor can cover a lot of problems.

    Unfortunately, RTCs (and Celebrity Christian Authors — make that Celebrities of any sort) take themselves (and their works) far too seriously.

    • “This is Jerry “Buck” Jenkins, of Synchronized Cookie-Snarfing Erotica scene fame. Romance is NOT his strong point.”

      Personally, I think it is his strong point. Relatively speaking I mean. He’s merely bad at it, as opposed to his collosal ineptitude at action, character development, pacing, show-don’t-tell. His mediocre and cringeworthy romance is above his average skill.

  10. Well, it wasn’t a great kiss scene to be sure, but considering the standard set by Chloe having to wait, what was it-? -ten months? for Buck to kiss her, I couldn’t help but be refreshed that Jenkins thinks it acceptable for a Good Woman Of Faith– uh, I mean a Half-Full-Glass Gal– to initiate a kiss. And with tongue, no less.

    Maybe I’m reading a message that isn’t there and the text is actually more disapproving, but I think Noella is the one we’re supposed to like according to Jenkins, so I don’t think we were supposed to be bothered by the pushy aspect.

    • Noella is most certainly the one we are supposed to like right now. At the very least, she is the one who doesn’t have to change a single thing about herself in order to have her happy ending. (Since this is a RTC parable and Noella is the believer.)

      Instead, it is Tom who has to do all the changing: not only his belief in Santa, but his entire outlook on life. Seems a tad unfair to me, but then again, that’s Santa-belief for ya. 😉

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