No, I’m not talking about the UFO aliens. I’m talking about the main characters in Outtakes of a UFO Investigator–Danny Shapiro, his mother Anna, his father Leon.
For those of who you haven’t seen my earlier Outtakes posts, I’ve been posting PDFs of stories that were originally part of my novel Journal of a UFO Investigator, but had to be cut when the novel took its present shape. (Click for chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 3. For chapter 4, which I’ve just put up, click here or on the large picture at the bottom of this post.)
When I first started, I envisioned the Outtakes as a collection of materials from the cutting-room floor (as its title indicates), its “chapters” discrete episodes. But now I feel it taking shape as a parallel novel to Journal of a UFO Investigator, with an integrity of its own. It’s a story of Danny’s life in the day-to-day world, focusing on his investigation of a New Jersey UFO landing and the book he tries to write about it. All while his mother is slowly dying, and–while this is happening, and he can’t bear to see it–he finds himself presented with the trip of a lifetime.
Looking over the chapters I’ve posted from Outtakes, I see that they’re missing something pretty important. The secondary characters, whom Danny meets in the course of his investigations, are described as they appear. But not Danny or his parents. Naturally–they were introduced in the published Journal of a UFO Investigator, and are again described in its sequel-in-progress, The Color of Electrum.
So here’s a few clues as to what they look like …
“She stands beside me, resting her weight on the back of my chair, touching my shoulder with her fingers. I lean forward. It makes me nervous when my mother touches me. I smell the sour sickness of her body. I don’t turn around, but I can see her in my mind: spindly limbs, gaunt, peaky face. Her thick cat eyeglasses, the lenses like teardrops. I wear glasses too.” (Journal of a UFO Investigator, chapter 1).
16-year-old Danny is describing his mother. But indirectly he’s also describing himself. His glasses, which he’s worn since he was a little boy, are an emblem of the bond the two of them share–which he’s ambivalent about, to say the least. The glasses define for him his physical appearance, which he normally doesn’t rate very highly. “I can’t stand him, I hate him, I despise him,” he says about himself in a convulsion of self-hatred; “with those thick glasses he’s the ugliest creature in the world” (Journal, chapter 30).
The beautiful Rochelle, his love interest in Journal, begs to differ:
“‘I’ve been wondering all evening,’ she said, ‘how you’d look without your glasses.’
“She reached up and took them off. ‘Oh, nice,’ she said. ‘Very, very nice.’ She raised her left index finger to my eyebrow and lightly traced the outline of my eye socket. ‘Marvelous socket. And a scrumptious curve here,’ she said, moving her finger up the bridge of my nose and then down to the tip. ‘And you cover it all up with glasses. Why do you do it?’
“‘I can’t see without them,’ I said.
“‘Ever hear of contact lenses? Ever read the Bausch and Lomb brochures? My glasses are twice as thick as yours, I’ll bet, when I’m not wearing my contacts.’
“‘I’ve worn glasses since I was almost six,’ I said.
“‘Doesn’t mean you have to keep on wearing them.'” (Journal, chapter 11)
In The Color of Electrum, Danny–18 years old, and a college freshman–gives a more balanced account of his now bearded self.
“His beard and mustache, after a sparse, awkward start, had come in full, reddish-gold in spots though his hair was still brown as ever. Did he look good in it? He’d never thought of himself as handsome, but maybe that was a mistake. Briefly he examined himself in the mirror. Nothing wrong with this face. Agreeable, kind. No obvious deformities, unless you counted the somewhat biggish ears. Or the thick horn-rimmed glasses he’d needed to wear since he was a little kid.” (Electrum, chapter 1)
Danny’s father Leon is described in Journal mostly by negation. Unlike Danny and his mother, he doesn’t wear glasses; therefore Danny attributes to him the “smooth, handsome face” that Danny doubts he can ever have (chapter 2). The Color of Electrum goes into a little more detail about Danny’s parents, whose pictures he’s hunted up in an old college yearbook:
“He was surprised when he actually did find their photos, as if his father and mother and Mrs. Colton could not have existed in their younger selves, and now behold here was the proof they did. Danny’s father, whom he’d imagined to have been a handsome young god, looked raw and twerpy in his yearbook picture, like a freshman who’d somehow gotten misclassified as a senior. His mother had been plain-faced and delicate, the sadness of her short life—even then she’d known her heart was weak, hadn’t she?—already imprinted on her youthful features.
“But the real surprise was Meg Kupferstein, currently Mrs. Meg Colton. Unlike his parents she looked away from the camera as if from a disdained admirer, her lips parted, her expression hotly sensual. Her hair was light-colored, blond evidently, in the photo. The heavy breasts, that now gave her a dumpy look, must have turned heads all over campus. Man, she’s tough! the guys in the dorm would have said as they sat paging through the freshman photo book on a dull Saturday night, busting out of their skins with horniness …” (Electrum, chapter 3)
(“Mrs. Meg Colton” is Danny’s stepmother-to-be, who first appears in Journal, more fully in Electrum. You’ll meet her in Outtakes, too.)
None of this, of course, would make it possible for someone who’d never seen these people to pick them out of a lineup. But that’s not what writers do, when we describe people. Rather, we’ll pick one or two outstanding features that we think will resonate with our readers, remind them of someone they know whom they can use as a model for their own mental picture.
Which, of course, will never be the same as ours. You don’t envision Danny or Leon or Anna Shapiro the same way I do. If a movie is ever made of Journal or of Electrum, the shape they take on the screen won’t look like either your mental construct or mine. But if you have any mental picture of these people–if you can imagine them, as you read about them, standing and moving and talking–then I’ve done my job as a writer.
Which I hope I have. And that you do.
by David Halperin
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Would you like to have these Outtakes as podcasts–free of charge? Let me know! I’ll see what I can do to provide them.