The stars are out, but what’s that in the sky? It could be any number of things, suggests David Halperin in his first novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator. This book blends the genres of science fiction and suspense thriller, wrapping a fast-paced plot around a coming-of-age tale. At many times this makes for a bizarre mix, one that doesn’t always hold the reader’s attention. That being said, readers will ultimately find it a poignant tale.
The novel takes place in the early 1960s and plays on many events happening at the time, events held by respectable people and outright nutcases alike to have conspiratorial qualities: the Roswell crash; the Kennedy assassination; the Cold War. All of these historic happenings are mixed up in the story, creating a hodgepodge of hysteria that Halperin builds on to gather together the plot of his novel.
That plot revolves around the life of main character Danny Shapiro. Danny is a teenager during this turbulent time period and facing all the adversity that comes with growing up. He is dealing with social issues of high school and physical issues of puberty, all of it compounded by a dying mother and a crisis of faith. Danny seems increasingly unstable as the pressure builds, and the reader may expect the narrative to end tragically any second.
Instead, a series of highly improbable events transform this ordinary teenager into a “UFO Investigator.” Danny lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but the story travels all over the place from Miami to Israel and back to Philadelphia. At times the plot moves very quickly, and Halperin’s writing style isn’t difficult to understand, at least not until the middle of the novel. Here, the story suffers from a fragmented style of writing, one that continues for a good many chapters. This is done for effect as Danny experiences several strange events having to do with aliens and conspiracies. Meanwhile, he also engages in predictable teenage behavior, experimenting with alcohol and sex. There are flashbacks, flash-forwards, and wildly imaginative scenarios in a narrative that is nowhere near linear. Halperin effectively captures the horror and overall strangeness of alien abduction in these middle chapters. He also progresses the time period of the story and the reader is never quite sure what is real and what is not. Halperin doesn’t fail in dramatic effect, but the free association style of writing will leave readers wondering where they are and why the story is not with them. Once this happens, the plot begins to drag, and it is an uphill battle to continue.
It is worth it, though. While the story becomes very much like a UFO itself, almost completely unidentifiable until the end, it comes crashing down upon the reader with dramatic awareness. Much of what has been happening is revealed, and previous chapters which blurred reality and imagination are explained. This brings the story together, providing much needed cohesion to the sequence of events. In these final chapters, Halperin redeems his earlier crazed over-creativity. The simplicity of the story’s conclusion leaves the reader with hope after building an overwhelming sense of heartbreak.
Journal of a UFO Investigator is not an in-depth science fiction epic; and the writing deals more with reality than the title lets on. It is very much a novel about loss. Many of these are losses we all must face: the loss of our youth, the death of a loved one, the absence of childhood friends. The extraordinary events, though sometimes distracting from these themes, help to remind us that even as these losses come, life can be full of wonder. This is the novel’s overall message, one readers should consider in day-to-day struggles, and every now and then it may be advisable to take a moment to glance at the skies.