With each passing year of the intensive summer writing camp I co-direct, our high schoolers are writing more stories about misfit adolescents who find social acceptance in secretive cults: ninjas, vampires, cabals devoted to candlelit backstabbing. Their stories are wildly imaginative, apocalyptic, futuristic yet noirish.
The trend owes much, of course, to Harry Potter and Twilight, which are inscribed in the Net Generation's literary DNA. More fundamentally, though, it reflects a basic psychic condition of adolescence, one that has probably deepened with the cloistered alienation of the Internet: I hate where I am, no one is like me and there is too much information! These stories express a choked but desperate longing, first to escape and then to belong, usually via some specialized skill or occult knowledge.
David Halperin's debut novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator, is evidence that the adolescent ache never quite expires. Halperin, professor emeritus of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill (his specialty is Judaica), published several nonfiction books about myth and religion before a close encounter of the academic kind. At a 1995 conference, he delivered a paper comparing ancient religious "ascensions" (e.g., Jacob's ladder, Ezekiel's wheel) to modern UFO abductions.
"The paper made a sensation," Halperin writes in an author's note (visit his blog, www.davidhalperin.net), and a referee at a scholarly journal threatened him with "prosecution for criminal malpractice." Apparently, Halperin had touched a nerve.
Wanting to explore his theory further, he protected it by removing it to the world of fiction—and autobiographical fiction at that. Halperin's alter ego in Journal of a UFO Investigator, Danny Shapiro, is a lonely Jewish boy growing up in the early 1960s in a Pennsylvania suburb. Danny's mother is slowly, painfully dying, and his cold father's attention to Danny mostly involves lancing his pimples.
When faith fails to assuage grief in the face of death (Danny reads the Bible but is a secular Jew), the occult offers solace. Thus the teenager, seeing no God in the sky, descries flying saucers instead. Danny, already a devotee of the UFO and other paranormal fictions popular at the time—he stays up late keeping a "UFO journal"—forms a two-man outfit with his best friend, called The UFO Investigators. Meanwhile, he pines for Rosa Paganini, a forbidden shiksa at school.
Danny soon trades up and into a higher society of clubbish young paranormalists, including swapping out Rosa for a similarly initialed Jewish girl named Rochelle Perlmann. From here the book takes off, with the story continuing within the confines of the journal-within-the-novel. Through it, he and the reader enter into a full-blown adventure-fantasy that is dark, dense and dizzying, careening from Pennsylvania to Miami to New Mexico and Israel, even into a flying saucer that descends into a hellish landscape of greasy ash and putrid rivers.
The tenebrous but feverish journal-tale, which bleeds into and virtually subsumes Danny's real life, borrows heavily from what a latter-day Danny calls the "odd, disreputable books that shaped and consoled my teenage years," by cult writers like Gray Barker, Albert Bender, Charles Fort and M.K. Jessup. Fans of their work will find much of interest in Journal of a UFO Investigator.
Although Halperin is in his 60s, he tells Danny's tale through the youngster's breathless, overheated young consciousness. It's a headlong and convincing performance, if at times hard to stay with, shot through with adolescent angst and lust. High school, Danny muses, is a place "of tedium, of mockery ... of feeling there was no one else like me in the world."
His coping mechanism? "I only dreamed. Sometimes ordinary ones, sometimes wet ones."
In Danny's fantasy, he consummates his lust for Rosa with her sexually liberated surrogate, Rochelle; his incipient grief over his doomed mother is staved off by the task of protecting and saving a sickly mutant child; and he gets more comfortable with his diffident Jewishness by associating with the smart and sexy teenagers in his new paranormalist club.
Later there are whiffs of paranoia and conspiracy (Zionism, the Kennedy assassination), of the sort that tend to accrue to UFO stories, but Halperin's novel departs from the orbit of its 1950s and 1960s pulp forebears via its overarching interest in the author's lifelong study of Jewish mysticism, Islam and other religious esoterica. Journal of a UFO Investigator suggests, especially near its end, the connection that raised academia's hackles in 1995: an affinity, at least a metaphoric one, between religious and paranormal experiences. The reader may be tempted to locate a key to these two mythologies, but Halperin's oblique comparison doesn't seem to encourage decoding, nor does his compulsive but distracted teen narrator; the dots don't seem meant to be connected.
Those with knowledge of Jewish mysticism will probably find more resonances than the lay reader, for whom the book is less an allegory than a frantic phantasmagoria, scary and bewildering, full of unwanted transformations and disappearances and suffering, without a light at the end of what Danny calls a "tunnel that leads from death into life"—that is, adulthood, where the terrain is "jagged rocks." Danny doesn't want to stay trapped in the tunnel, of course, but nor does he want to emerge, plunge and be dashed on the rocks below. Welcome to adolescence.