“Leon comes off much kinder in this episode than in the finished book.”
That comment appeared on my Facebook Fan Page about the first episode of Outtakes of a UFO Investigator, which I published four weeks ago as a download from this blog. It was posted by my friend Bryan Gilmer–and he ought to know. Bryan’s not only read Journal of a UFO Investigator as a published book. A valued writer colleague, he earlier read and commented on multiple drafts of it. (In case you don’t know Bryan, he’s the author of the excellent thrillers Felonious Jazz and Record of Wrongs.)
Bryan’s absolutely right. In Journal of a UFO Investigator as it took final shape, Danny Shapiro’s father Leon is something of an ogre, of whom Danny goes in dread. Naturally. We see him exclusively through Danny’s eyes.
“I should begin to be frightened. Not of his walloping me when he comes storming in; he’s never done that. But of the tidal wave blindness of his rage, the bitter words that burn like lava, that will leave me scorched and desolate and sleepless afterward as I struggle to swallow what the three of us spend our lives pretending isn’t so. Namely that he hates me and everything I am.”
That’s Danny and his father, in chapter 1. By midway through the story, something’s changed. When Leon comes into Danny’s room in chapter 23, Danny feels his father’s exhaustion from supporting a family and caring for a sick, dying wife. He understands how badly Leon needed the encouragement of a flirty letter he’s received from an unnamed but apparently female correspondent in Long Island. When Leon quizzes him, Danny reflects that his father isn’t “using questions to prove to me how my life is all wrong, but like he’s genuinely interested. Like he really wants to know.”
“Still with those pimples,” Leon says, as he touches Danny’s adolescent face, and in his voice Danny now hears sympathy.
“Maybe it’s not true, what I’ve always believed. Maybe he doesn’t hate me. Maybe this is something complicated beyond my grasp, by things I don’t remember, that happened before I was born. And that aren’t written in the Bible.” (p. 156)
As Leon leaves the room, he gives Danny a look which Danny understands to mean: “I never walked out on you and your mom. Give me some credit for that, will ya?” To which Danny silently responds: “Yes, Dad, I will. I mean, I do.”
In other words–Danny’s growing up. He’s getting his first inkling that he’s not the center of his father’s universe, that Leon Shapiro’s rage and frustration are rooted in a past to which Danny was a late and perhaps incidental arrival. That it’s not about him at all.
When I spoke with an honors seminar at Northern Michigan University about Journal of a UFO Investigator, I asked the students whether they thought Danny will become more sympathetic to his father as he continues to mature. The consensus was that he will. I agree. This process of Danny’s growing empathy, for the suffering of a man whom he’d never really liked or trusted, is part of what The Color of Electrum–the sequel to Journal of a UFO Investigator–is about.
In the meantime, Leon Shapiro gets a bad press he doesn’t entirely deserve. It’s not something I’m happy about. When I wrote the first draft of the book that became Journal of a UFO Investigator, some 15 years ago, it was far different.
The novel is currently 304 pages long, in the Viking Press hardback edition. The first draft was 1500 pages of typescript. Inspired by John Wain’s 1978 novel The Pardoner’s Tale (which I liked a great deal better than I gather some of the critics did), I alternated third-person and first-person chapters. In the third-person chapters I told the story of Danny’s day-to-day life–as a junior high and then high school student, as a committed and slightly obsessed UFO investigator, as the son of a terminally ill woman who he doesn’t realize is dying until it’s too late. Danny’s inner experience, in the form of a surreal story unfolding in the world of the UFOs, occupied the first-person chapters.
Of course the book didn’t fly. How could it, bulky as it was? Besides, as novelist Ann Prospero pointed out to me after she read parts of it, the two parallel stories kept bumping into each other, detracting rather than complementing. “Keep the UFO story,” she advised. “Cut the rest.” And so, after more rewrites than I care to remember, Journal of a UFO Investigator took on its present form. All of it in the first person, as Danny’s UFO journal. The day-to-day context of his journal could only be hinted at, from within the framework of the journal itself.
I don’t regret having done this. It’s what made the book possible. But whatever choice you make when you write a novel, there’s a price to be paid. Multiple prices, normally. For me the heaviest cost was that Danny’s father was turned, from a full and often sympathetic human being, into a mostly sinister shadow onto which Danny can project his fears and angers. There’s a truth in this too–isn’t that very much how we see our parents? But the novel, in becoming tighter and more effective, also became in a significant way less rich. Leon Shapiro no longer came across–or, he came across only obliquely–as who he originally was: a limited man facing almost unbearable tragedy.
Actually, I once wrote a chapter–a long chapter–from Leon’s point of view. It flowed out of me. I felt, writing it, that I knew Leon almost as well as I knew Danny. If I were publishing it, I’d call it simply “Leon’s Story.” Come to think of it, I believe I will publish “Leon’s Story” this summer, as part of the Outtakes of a UFO Investigator.
Today I’m publishing a different episode. It’s set in the spring of 1965, when Danny’s a tenth-grader. One afternoon his mother gives him the thrilling news that a UFO has landed practically across the Delaware River from their home, in the town of Scofield, New Jersey (fictional; modeled on Glassboro). Danny, as a devoted UFOlogist, sets about “investigating”–and finds himself propelled into “alienness” of a sort he’d never bargained for.
(The photo above is from the real-life incident that underlies the story. You can read the details on the timeline of my Facebook Fan Page for September 12, 1964.)
Does Leon Shapiro come across as sympathetic in this “chapter 2” of Outtakes of a UFO Investigator, as he did in chapter 1? Probably not. Yet I don’t intend him to be a villain either. Just a man struggling with a reality beyond his control, and like most of us doing a job with it that’s considerably less than optimal.
I’ll ask Bryan what he thinks.
And you–once you’ve read the story–what do you think?
Have you enjoyed these episodes of Outtakes of a UFO Investigator? Either way, I’d like to hear from you. Post your comments here or on my Facebook Fan Page,
by David Halperin
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