In his head, a boy creates new worlds
David Halperin’s fictional debut is built on a trope so familiar it’s comforting: the young protagonist whose life of drudgery falls away when he discovers a realm of magic and mystery, lying invisibly atop the world he knows.
The year is 1963. Thirteen-year-old Danny Shapiro’s mother is dying; his father is remote and furious; and the Cuban Missile Crisis has left the nation terrified of nuclear war. Danny, isolated and tentative, buries himself in the lore and science of Unidentified Flying Objects, convinced alien beings are real and close by and that insidious forces, embodied by a trio of black-clad men, are working to hide the truth.
Before long, his interest becomes a magnet; first a UFO finds Danny, and then a cadre of teenage investigators, working feverishly to unravel an ever-deepening conspiracy, adopts him as one of their own. Swept up in the intrigue and smitten by a female comrade-in-arms, Danny strikes out on a quest that will leave all his friends dead or in hiding, and carry him beyond the confines of time and the known regions of the universe. Before it’s all over, he will brave the eerie subterranean realm of an ancient alien race known as the dero, pilot a flying saucer to the dark side of the moon, and smuggle his half-human child — destined, perhaps, to restore the troubled planet’s balance — across the fortified border separating Jordan from Israel.
Except that it’s all in Danny’s head, flowing through his pen, and into the novel’s titular journal — an invented battleground on which he grapples with his demons and probes the limits and the nature of belief. This is a twist of sorts, but it’s one the book telegraphs early on, and reveals outright well before the halfway point. Once that revelation comes, and the game becomes drawing the connections between Danny’s mostly off-the-page real life and its fantastic, journaled corollaries, all the tension goes out of the narrative.
On a structural level, Halperin has painted himself into a corner: “Journal of a UFO Investigator’’ is written in first person, from Danny’s perspective, so there is no way for the reveal to come dramatically, no chance for the thought that Danny is inventing his adventures to dawn gradually on the reader. Danny himself has to pull back the curtain, repeatedly and clumsily, and this undermines the whole conceit.
This problem is compounded by the blurry dramatization of Danny’s domestic life. Neither of his parents ever comes fully into focus as a character, so reality never emerges as a worthy counterpoint to his imagination. Like his protagonist, Halperin seems better able to manage high-stakes galactic intrigue than the quiet desperation back home. The result is an emotional lacuna, a sense that it is not just Danny who can function only in a dream world, but the novel itself.
It’s a shame, because Halperin pulls off some deeply imaginative scenes: Danny’s timeless interlude in the barren, ash-filled world of the insect-like dero is vivid and captivating, his visit to the Well of Souls full of striking imagery. At his best, Halperin, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, is able to infuse his tale with subtle meditations on faith and reality, death and redemption. And there are pleasures to be found here: moments of wild inventiveness, palpable paranoia, capable, ’60s-specific evocations of teenage longing and conspiracy culture. But with its unadorned prose and straightforward psychology, its bashful teenage protagonist coming of age with the world’s fate hanging in the balance, “Journal of a UFO Investigator’’ often reads like young adult fiction.
Adam Mansbach teaches fiction at Rutgers University and can be reached at adammansbach.com. His children’s book, “Go the [expletive] to Sleep,’’ is forthcoming from Akashic Books.