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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Journal of a UFO Investigator: A Novel by David J. Halperin (Viking) is set in the early part of 1963 and seems to have been written up around 1966. It covers of the arc of high school, the crucible of adolescent angst and alienation. On first reading it seems to be a slightly autobiographical coming of age tale of a lonely scholarly Jewish boy, living more in the Gentile world than in the comfort of a Jewish extended family. His mother is chronically ill with a heart condition which may have emerged during her pregnancy with Danny. He feels a profound guilty responsibility for his mother's illness and at the same time finds that her behavior distances him from her. Danny idealizes his slightly remembered grandfather who was a religious Jew, a Rabbi. His father is an unhappy man who is mostly remote except for his occasional excavations of his son’s pimples with a pin. At 13 Danny Schapiro is at the end of childhood and his childhood friends and at the beginning of adolescence with its sexual anxiety and naivety. Danny is confused about his Jewishness, he has been warned by his mother that it sets him apart, especially when it comes to girls and dating. It seems all adolescents share a trait of universal loneliness and disaffection where they are set apart and find no group to cling.

The beginning of the story Danny and his best friend, Jeff, have developed an enthusiasm for UFO literature. Jeff betrays him over another friend who happens to be a pretty young girl, Rosa, with a sadistic drunk of a mother. Danny has an unexpressed crush on her. The boys separate and Danny’s best friend becomes a mocking and remote figure. Apparently Danny has never had a bar mitzvah. Danny’s girlfriend Rosa, after he rejects dancing with her at the school dance, feeling more humiliation because of his confused rejection based on the mixed messages from his mother, than he can understand. Unfortunately, before he is able to talk to Rosa to explain his bewilderment, she runs away from her home and is never seen again. He fantasizes that she has moved to Florida to live with her father.

However the transition is made, Danny meets a slightly older teenager, Julian, who volunteers at the library in the rare book room. Upon receiving a mysterious telephone call, Danny goes to the rare book room to find copies of the Jewish lunar calendar. Though the teenager is only three years older, he seems a wise and widely, slightly mocking, with a superior cockiness, a certainty of knowledge about things, that Danny has not even grown to presume. Over some weeks they become friendly and Danny is invited to join a science club that seems especially keen on astronomy, especially looking deep into the face of the moon and its craters. Recall how otherwise remote father, deeply scrutinizes Danny's face for ripe pimples to excise.

In the club he meets a girl only a few years older than him. Rochelle is remarkably beautiful and seemingly a worldly wise, sexually precocious. There is another boy, Tom Dimitrios, in the club who may be her boyfriend, though Danny is too shy to find out because he does not want to reveal how vulnerable his attraction makes him feel. He discovers that the science club is also into investigating the phenomenon of UFOs. They banter around much of the UFO best-selling books of the time, arguing their merits, debating to what degree various UFO theories match the facts and how plausible some of these facts may or may not be. One of the features of this novel is that all the UFO information is based on the actual UFO lore available from that time. The group decides that there is a special annotated copy of, M. K. Jessop’s own copy of The Case for the UFO. Jessop committed suicide under mysterious circumstances, and perhaps they’ll be able to locate it hidden away in the author’s house.

After several months, Danny and his friend Julian drive down to Florida, to rendezvous with Rochelle at the Miami airport. Danny continues to have strange fantasies about the omniscience, or special knowledge of his science club friends. And though he has been hanging out with them for several months it seems that he has not been able to fully assess the pecking order of these three precocious adolescent goyim. Danny is passive among them. It is they who show him how to transgress peoples’ expectations in order to achieve their aims. Besides his passivity he maintains diffidence based on a lack of trust both of himself and of these teenagers.

Just before they reach Miami during long talks in the car, Danny tries to confide in Julian about his confusion over Rosa and the dance. He does not trust him to listen in straightforward and sympathetic manner, so he deflects the issue by calling it a dream. Danny has already begun to confuse Rosa and Rochelle. They seem to be part of the eternal feminine for him. Julian doesn't buy that this is the dream, but in a way to appease Danny, tries to let him know what the mission is actually about in South Florida. Danny discovers that his recruitment into the science club was a fully planned ruse. That Rochelle is a skillful con artist who learnt a lot about Danny from his mother, pretending to be a sociology student. That discovering Danny had a keen knowledge of UFO lore, they thought he would be a useful addition to their science club and their own investigations. Danny becomes dismayed in discovering how he had been duped by these friends whom he now knows he cannot trust because they have never been entirely honest with him.

However, dismayed he may feel he is left off at the airport to pick up Rochelle. The plane arrives but Rochelle does not. Danny is somewhat lost and not having contingency plans, isn't quite sure what to do. He goes down to the baggage claim and notices a bag that has Rochelle's name on it. He takes it. But then is questioned by two men who may be porters or undercover police, or later criminals, who rifles through the luggage looking for drugs, but instead find annotated by Gypsies M. K. Jessop’s own copy of The Case for the UFO book sewn into the lining of the suitcase. They also showed him a picture of Tom Dimitrios the third member of the club, looking as though he were dead in an automobile. No drugs found in after much intimidation and a bit of torture, including threatening David with a pin to be stuck into his eye, knocking his glasses to the ground so that one Lens cracks in half, Danny escapes with the book and eventually finds his way out of the labyrinth-like airport to hijack car and tear out of town. Eventually the car runs out of gas and drives off the road. It is hot and sticky and David has gone into shock. He believes he sees the three men who are after him, they are the men in black, perhaps government agents, more likely aliens from UFOs.

Danny is now completely locked in a white room with the moon high overhead and larger than usual. A terrible thirst haunts him, and he seems to find a window that he can squeeze out of where he goes to get water, he has a thirst that drives him to drink putrid water and he seems to fight with emanations from his own mind, commanding words, and a shadowy spiderlike thing pulling him into the water. All vegetation seems ashen and all color is washed from the world. One foot seems to be seriously injured and he takes his shoe off to make it a weapon. He does not know where he is so he returns to the white space. He seems to have been taken aboard a UFO but it does not ascend but descends into the earth. Yet in the earth the moon seems bigger than it does on the surface.

So far this abduction follows the then available stories about UFO abductions. It is a hybrid story combining many of the elements of fantasy but also of visionary experience that seems to haunt psychosis. The period of abduction seems to be interminable. He seems abstractly pulled away from all normal reference points. The rabid thirst and pain and disorientation seem to drive him into an exterior survival mode in which there is very little introspection. I am reminded of the Violet McDermott's study The Cults of the Seer and the Ancient near East, where she anthologizes how accounts of austerities, exposure to extreme temperatures and elements, thirst, sleeplessness, fasting, and other various forms of self-induced trauma become conduits to visions of the divine and demonic.

Yet at the same time, Danny only token of his experience is this new book, M. K. Jessop’s own copy of The Case for the UFO with these unique annotations which seems to have been made by the men in black who may have been the very porters who chased him into this unexpected encounter and abduction. Danny has learned to trust books, in a way that he does not trust people, and yet as he reads through the book, especially looking at the annotations that seem to have been made on every whitespace and margin, he tries to make sense of his experience while still in the throes of it. Meanwhile in an offhanded fashion we are told that Danny has won a national prize for writing an essay on the passage of time in The Book of Job.

The alternate reality seems to persist interminably, chthonic, antediluvian nightmare asceticism and disorientation, near psychotic while carrying on a form of idealized compensating fantasy, wish fulfilling and frustrating in the same instant that has him impregnating an alien creature, while fighting off spiderlike creatures that cluster around his only source of sustenance and nurturance a putrid liquid. He hurts his foot and finds that he is limping.  (Shades of Oedipus = Swollen foot, and mother guilt). At first the inside of the saucer is alien to him, but the rotten and ash-like brittle plants that surround that place are even more alienating so that he slowly becomes familiarized with the control panel of the ship. It may be an alien who teaches him how to manipulate the controls.

The second part of Danny's incubation in psychosis begins with his now moving from the underworld into a sense of flight that may take him to the moon or some other nondescript planet. He experiences the well of the souls and we are provided with allusions to ancient space travel as for instance Lucian’s of Samosata Greco-Syrian satirist of the second century CE Icaromenippus and True History, satiric tales written in the second century AD. The True History deals with imaginary voyages to the moon and Venus via fountain, discovering extraterrestrial life and chronicling wars between planets. The light which may be a moon reminds me lunar ark of Osiris was the god’s coffin and ship for his entrance into a descent into the infernal regions that may well simultaneously be celestial regions.

The two doors of the floating Moon, that may be the ship in which he has an ingress and egress to Danny’s regenerating body tortured by his new environment to adapt to spaces where up and down and inside and outside ceased to offer consolation, is also the door in the side of Noah’s Ark; through The rancid waters remind of tides of the Styx to flood the floating Moon above are also intimations of the deluge to overwhelm the Ark. The other islands, which lie lower than the Lunar Island and which consequently, do not escape the putrid tides seems to represent of the various parts of the Earth, vast floating flotsam island on the bosom of the great abyss. The cavern, finally, of Hecate, or Gehenna , within which the wicked are reserved for punishment or banishment, represents the great central cavity of the Earth. At is placed within the floating Moon, because the Ark and the Earth are each alike esteemed a World and a floating island.

Time ceases to have its terrestrial pace for Danny and as he acclimatizes to his alien environment defines a way of release that takes him to the newly unified Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. Here he meets an adult Rochelle and they become lovers. Together they touch upon the mythical themes of his abduction into the nether celestial world. This conclusion, which exactly harmonizes with all the preceding observations, renders Plutarch telling of the curious vision of Timarchus perfectly intelligible.

The end of his journalistic chronicling of his investigations into UFOs, Danny allows some mundane glosses to reorient the reader to the humdrum life of an alienated and lonely Jewish high school student. Some characters are returned to some degree of historic context while others are admitted to the of visionary and compensating fantasy origins. In many ways this dark fantasy of abduction is the conscious denial, and unconscious reveling in the degenerating heart of his dying mother. Wracked with guilt and unable to assimilate the decaying facts before him, he finds within his own underworld journey liberation not only for his own eventual adulthood, but as a good son, he is in a way never fully admitted trailblazing the afterlife journey for his mother.

Journal of a UFO Investigator represents a coming-of-age-story told through the compensating fantasies of a lonely precocious boy. What then is the UFO and what is the real meaning of the myths of the men in black and their close watching? They represent the world of men who will not actually allow him for entrée. With the death of his mother and the recognition that his father is moving on to find another companion, Danny realizes that the core of all unidentified flying objects is the mortality of our own bodies.