Starting with its beguiling title, “Journal of a UFO Investigator” by David Halperin (Viking, $25.95) is an enchantment from beginning to end, a coming-of-age story that is also a kind of whodunit and, above all, an eerie adventure tale set in the subculture of flying saucers and space creatures.
Most intriguing of all, however, is the fact the David Halperin brings to his first novel everything he has learned about myth and legend over a long career as a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. Halperin, for example, has written extensively about the visions of Ezekiel, whose description of fiery wheels has long been interpreted as an account of an early visitation by a spaceship.
The story that Halperin tells opens on the day in 1966 when 13-year-old Danny Shapiro reports a sighting to his friends and fellow adolescent “UFO investigators.” The search for a plausible explanation draws young Danny into a mysterious text, an even more mysterious death, and then into what appears to be a deadly pursuit across time and space. “Riddles chased mysteries, were chased by enigmas, around and around my brain,” is how young Danny explains it all to himself.
Ultimately, Danny finds himself transported to an otherworldly place— or is it? “I felt weirdly light, as if I were going to sail off into space at any time,” he observes. “Colored shapes streamed through the black sky above us. A flotilla of glowing objects, like the one that stopped over my house and hurled itself down upon me.” But then the author offers the hint of a more worldly explanation: “Like the gas station signs, the evening before my mother’s heart attack, when my father drove us home from a picnic in the country and I lay with my feet in his lap and my head in hers, and I watched the blazing disk of Gulf and the red star of Texaco and the winged, bloodred horse of Mobilgas stream through the sky window. I was safe then and happy. For the last time.”
So the world of “UFOlogists” and sci-fi fans turns out to have something in common with the workings of the human imagination that also produced the sacred texts, or so we may conclude from “Journal of a UFO Investigator.” Indeed, Halperin eventually puts his characters into the modern Middle East, where the mythical “Men in Black” are taken to be Zionists rather than agents of some intergalactic conspiracy, and where a flash of light in the night sky turns out to be exploding land mine. “[W]e pick our demons,” observes Danny, now older and wiser, “and build our worlds around them.”
Halperin never fully explains the strange fate that befalls Danny Shapiro. He invites us to believe that Danny has traveled through time and space on a mind-boggling journey, but he also permits us to conclude that we are witnessing nothing more than the overheated imagination of a tormented adolescent. “I used to think, if I researched them, investigated the sightings, learned the physics of how they fly, I might be transported with them into the skies,” writes Danny in his last word on UFOs. “Last summer I was transported. I flew, I really did, to Israel and back. But then I crashed. I’m still digging myself out of that wreckage.”
At one point in the novel, Danny is using a microfilm reader at the local library to investigate previous sightings, and he holds his hand above the flickering screen. “My hand then took on a ghostly appearance, not invisible exactly but transparent, as though my bone and flesh had become unreal,” he recalls. “The only things real were the letters and words of the long-forgotten stories, shining upon my skin.”
At that ethereal moment, the author offers us a glimpse into the world of magic that he has conjured up with such power and mastery. David Halperin spent his academic career in the study of ancient religious texts, and now that he has he turned to writing fiction, he is still in the thrall of words on the page. Thanks to “Journal of a UFO Investigator,” his readers will be, too.