Out of Step, and Out of This World

A Memorable and Wildly Idiosyncratic Novel Debut by Former Jewish Studies Professor David Halperin

Kurt Hoffman

By Stuart Schoffman

Published February 16, 2011, issue of February 25, 2011.
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Journal of a UFO Investigator
By David Halperin
Viking, 294 pages, $25.95

“I sat swaying over the book, poring over its words. I could make out nearly all that the Gypsies had written if I stuck with it long enough. The meaning was something else again. But that’s the way of a scripture: it’s often not meant to be understood.” So writes Danny Shapiro, the narrator-protagonist of David Halperin’s startling first novel.

“Journal of a UFO Investigator” is intricate and subversive, a book not easily understood. On the manifest level — peshat, in the Jewish interpretative tradition — it is a touching and engrossing coming-of-age novel composed in a simple style, a voyage of discovery starring an unhappy teenager named Danny Shapiro who finds refuge in UFO research and flights of fantasy: sightings, abductions, conspiracies, the whole generic megillah. (His mantra is a line from “The Book of the Damned,” a classic American study of paranormal phenomena: “Science is a turtle that says that its own shell encloses all things.”) Danny’s mother is an invalid with a heart condition. His father seethes with quiet anger, often directed at Danny, his only child. The book is set in a Philadelphia suburb between 1963 and 1966 — the “distant days,” as the author reveals in his acknowledgments, “when I was myself a teenage UFO investigator.”

Before turning to the freer domain of fiction, Halperin, now a professor emeritus, taught Jewish religious studies at the University of North Carolina. His scholarly work has focused on Jewish mysticism, ranging from the ecstatic visions of the biblical prophet Ezekiel (who saw wheels within wheels in the sky) to the messianic career of Sabbatai Zevi. In 2001, Paulist Press, in its “Classics of Western Spirituality” series, published Halperin’s translations of kabbalistic writings by Abraham Cardozo, a 17th-century Spanish “New Christian,” or Marrano, who returned to Judaism. Cardozo remained a believer in Zevi — even after the latter’s conversion to Islam — and ultimately perceived himself as a messianic figure. Halperin concludes his 100-page biographical introduction with a sort of manifesto:

Out-of-step people, as Don Quixote’s admirers will recognize, often have insights that those who are in step tend to miss…. Do we find ourselves identified, unbreakably, with a religious tradition, yet alienated from the people who ought to be our fellow-believers? Does this alienation extend, at times, to the content of the tradition, and we yearn for a way to redefine that content or to see it in fresh perspective?… In meeting Cardozo, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, we may easily feel as though we were seeing an old, long-absent friend.

Halperin’s novel of aliens and alienation may be read as the extension of his academic pursuits through very different means. These lines about Cardozo, alongside Danny’s words quoted above, are a window into the drash, remez and sod of Halperin’s “Journal”— interpretive layers of homily, metaphor and mystery. What is that book that Danny “sat swaying over” like a volume of Talmud or Zohar? Fasten your seat belts.

The book is called “The Case for the UFO” and is written by Morris K. Jessup (a classic in its field, published in 1955.) The fictional Danny gets hold of a copy with cryptic marginalia inscribed by Gypsies, and clings to it for dear life as he is pursued in Florida by three men in black, transported toward the moon inside a huge fluorescent red disk, ensnared by clawed creatures in a putrid lake and plunged deep into the Well of Souls, beneath the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, prior to the story’s climax in a still-divided Jerusalem. There, on the Arab side, he hooks up with Rochelle Perlmann, his half-Episcopalian teenage friend from Philadelphia, who declares: “Myths are real…. They have to be real. Otherwise they wouldn’t stay around for centuries. They’d vanish like last year’s top tunes.” Along the way, Danny steps on a sharp bone, and injures his foot (Ezekiel meets Oedipus), and afterward — the aliens call this “the seeding” — he sires a sickly female star-child who may or may not be destined to save the world. And he also wins a trip to Israel, for an essay he wrote called “Passage of Time in the Book of Job.”

Whew. It is a measure of the author’s painstaking artistry — the book was 14 years in the making — that virtually none of this jambalaya comes across as silly. “Riddles chased mysteries, were chased by enigmas, around and around my brain,” Danny narrates, and we hang on for the bewildering ride, toggling back and forth in time and space, between faith and doubt, the real and the imagined. “But that’s the way of a scripture,” as Danny has reminded us. Sacred lore and heretical sci-fi, the author is telling us, have plenty in common.

In the Well of Souls, Danny meets his pious maternal grandfather, who died when Danny was 4 years old. He shows his grandfather the UFO book: “Like the old Hebrew books you used to read. There’s text here, and there’s commentary, and the commentary is more important than the text.” Danny reads aloud a Gypsy complaint about non-Gypsies: “Such fools [they] are! They call us Alien, when all the time we are within them, Bone of their Bone and flesh of their flesh.” One doesn’t need a secret decoder ring to realize that this is about death and the Holocaust. In Jordanian Jerusalem, conspiracy theories abound. “Here the three men in black are Zionists,” Rochelle tells Danny.

Yet the book’s meta-narrative subverts the standard Jewish story. Danny’s frail mother has given up Orthodoxy, but steadfastly opposes him dating a gentile. He has a teenage crush on the sultry Rosa Pagliano, but won’t even dance with her, “because my mother is sick and I don’t want to do anything to make her get sicker.” Rosa leaves town; he is guilt-ridden. As a UFO investigator, he aims to flee Jewish parochialism and mend his broken heart, and through his close encounters with aliens he becomes a confirmed universalist.

“Don’t ever tell me religion is anything more than a turtle,” Danny says to Rochelle in Jerusalem. “I’ve been inside one religion, and it’s the tightest, most suffocating turtle shell there ever was!” Danny the narrator continues: “I felt it strangling me even as I spoke. The thirst for chosenness that makes a lovely, spirited young girl into a thing forbidden and abominable. The suffering; the duty to the dead. All through your youth you bear them as a yoke, even as your days speed by like a weaver’s shuttle. Yet how sweet and homelike it seems, while you’re inside. A shiver of rage passed through me.”

According to the biblical book of Lamentations (3:27), “It is good for a man that he bear a yoke in his youth,” which is certainly true for many novelists. Danny grows up, but is not free of torment. He concludes his investigations, and prepares to go off to college. “That journal still flows within me,” he writes, “but in brief, sudden spurts, with weeks sometimes between entries. And when it comes — For centuries I hung on the stake —When it comes, it is wholly dark and terrible.”

What are we to make of that? A strong Christian image to complement the book of Job and the Dome of the Rock, or is there more to it than religious ecumenism? A recurrent motif in Halperin’s wheels-within-wheels book is the story of Joseph and Zuleikha, the Muslim name for Potiphar’s wife, the older woman who seduces the innocent young man in both Genesis and the Quran. Danny, seduced by the worldly Rochelle, thus becomes a Joseph figure. In 1997, in a collection called “The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth,” Halperin published a fascinating academic article in which he conflated the near-divine kabbalistic figure of Metatron with the biblical Joseph and Sabbatai Zevi, arguing complexly that the transgressive messianic movement enabled 17th-century Jews, particularly in Western Europe, to meet “the impossible challenge of finding some way to be Gentile without ceasing to be Jewish.” Extrapolating his italicized speculation to American suburbia, one may argue that Danny’s way out of his teenage funk is to fancy himself a suffering messiah, or at least the father of one.

Whatever on earth (or in heaven) it is meant to mean, “Journal of a UFO Investigator” is a captivating, wildly idiosyncratic book, a rare mashup of genre fiction and high-flying myth that lingers in the mind and invites rereading. Here, too, Halperin plants a helpful seed for his critics, in an early scene in the Rare Book Room of the Philadelphia library, implausibly manned by a 15-year-old Jewish kid named Julian. “That’s the remarkable thing about rare books, isn’t it?” Julian says to Danny. “You fall under their spell, you just can’t stay away.”

Stuart Schoffman is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.


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