UPDATE: Chuck Zukowski appears to have responded to my post. You can see the comment at the bottom of this post. If it’s really him, he is really quite angry at my characterization of him. He also rightly points out that I do not have a science background (hopefully that’s clear to any regular readers). I’m not going to change my review. I’m also going to leave the comment up; it’s more ranting than argument, but I do feel the guy deserves the space to defend himself. I would prefer that people who put themselves in the public eye just avoid seeking out commentary from random people on the Internet, but I can’t dictate what people do with their free time.
The biggest takeaway from the comment, for me, is that the individual claiming to be Chuck says that Ben Mezrich mischaracterized him. He says that his wife didn’t have two jobs, for instance. If I were Chuck, I’d be furious with Ben for characterizing myself in such a horrible way. I suppose if you read this review now, keep in mind that the depiction of Chuck is far more a fictionalized character than an accurate portrayal. To the extent that this is true, Mezrich has published pseudo-fiction as nonfiction. That goes further than just making up dialogue or using a composite character. It feels a little like character assassination…
The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway by Ben Mezrich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’d never read anything by Ben Mezrich before. I’d heard of his works, though, if only because of the occasional Hollywood adaptation. I’d seen The Social Network. It was interesting to see that he’d written a book on the paranormal, which I found squirreled away in a corner of my local library a while back. Either this book or the concept of concentrated geographic regions of paranormal activity across America had been discussed in the so-bad-it’s-good “documentary” Hellier, so there was the faintest ring of recognition in the back of my mind when I did come across it. I figured, why not? I’ve read plenty of books and stories and watched plenty of shows with a paranormal bent, so I felt confident that at best, this could be a thoughtful examination of strange phenomenon or perhaps just a quirky character piece, while at worst, it would be some entertaining fluff to occupy some of my down time.
Sadly, for the most part, The 37th Parallel failed to even be entertaining.
There are many reasons why I did not enjoy this read. Some are related to style and narrative, but some are related to its underlying subjects. Frankly, there was quite a bit of overlap between these factors. My central complaint is that the book follows a thoroughly unlikeable and uncompelling outsider who is convinced that he is a crusading hero for the truth–and it never really makes much of an effort to challenge or contradict his beliefs about himself or his investigations. I had never heard of Chuck Zukowski before, but it is clear that the central figure of this narrative is eager for publicity. By way of example: in the book, he finds a little bit of metal at the alleged Roswell crash site, orders some analysis that produces data that would allow for a more conventional explanation, and pushes for a press release and special event to celebrate his findings; he calls out a local news team to interview him about a cattle mutilation case he’s investigating; and when he comes up with his “UFO highway” hypothesis, central to the book but barely present in it, his sister asks, knowing him, “What do you want to do with this? Put out a press release?” A quick Google search shows that he maintains a website; he’s active on Twitter under a handle based off his site name; he turns up for radio and news interviews; and his IMDb page indicates that he’s slowly carved a bit of the paranormal TV racket out for himself, most recently with his own show, Alien Highway. To return focus to his portrayal just within the book’s narrative, Chuck is a gun-nut paranoid obsessive who forces his family to relocate from California to Colorado so he can go from a full-time job in microchips to a part-time freelance position closer to some of the more interesting paranormal activity he’s gotten reports about. He follows a quest for glory to become a Reserve Sheriff’s Deputy, but his need for publicity ultimately puts him in opposition with his department, and he’s fired from that volunteer role. Once out of the volunteer job, he makes no effort to go back to full-time work, instead focusing more on his hobby of hunting UFOs and investigating cattle mutilations. In the meantime, his wife has to hold down two jobs just to cover the bills. He overspends on bullshit technology for his investigations, because just about every middle-aged white male paranormal investigator conflates lots of gadgets with doing science. While he still had a decent income, he would try to bribe his wife with appliance upgrades and kitchen remodeling to get her over the frustration of his overspending (in other words, he spent even more on “woman stuff” to try to pacify his wife over spending too much). He seems anxious about his wife not understanding his UFO obsession, and he gets frustrated when she doesn’t believe the same nonsense he does, but she’s shown as nothing less than supportive, giving him all this free time to travel across the country and letting him blow through their money even while she’s working double and raising their kids. A highlight of his reckless, selfish behavior is when he reflects on two incidences in which his wife “exploded on him”: one time after maxing out a credit cart on equipment “the same afternoon she’d tried to make a payment on their youngest son’s braces” and another time when he spent $300 on scalpels the morning after their washing machine broke down. If there is a true hero, it’s Tammy, his long-suffering wife, whose main character flaw appears to be an enabler tendency and an unwillingness to demand that he make any sort of sacrifice for his family or even seriously consider the possibility of psychiatric care even as he spirals into paranoid thinking including the belief that he is perpetually tailed by government agents in black SUVs.
There was nothing charming to me about Chuck. He seemed like a bad dad and a bad husband, too obsessed with what he wanted to see to even register how his actions impacted those around him. Maybe that’s an unfair read, but there’s nothing he did for his family (at least in the book) that was truly selfless. Sure, he bought an RV and took them on family trips a lot when the kids were younger–so he could drive to places known for paranormal activity. He even scheduled participation in a volunteer archaeological dig with his wife for his wedding anniversary so that he could learn more about how to conduct physical investigations at field sites.
Chuck also broadcasts a lot of tired, racist beliefs about Native Americans. He believed the Anasazi were in communication with aliens. He reads Indian “sacred and historic” sites as somehow fundamentally connected to the paranormal phenomenon he tracks. For that matter, he does not seem to register that indigenous peoples have been repeatedly displaced. And in the tradition of the classic, “I’m not racist, I have a/an [insert race here] friend,” he even has a “part Native American” friend who drifts in and out of the story for Chuck to use as a tracker, sidekick, and key to get onto indigenous lands.
Mezrich tries to keep us in Chuck’s perspective, only occasionally taking a trip to track someone else’s (typically sympathetic or allied) viewpoint. I suppose he was trying hard to frame Chuck as heroic, or perhaps he just couldn’t think of a better way to humanize him. But his depiction of Chuck is someone with 90% grandiose thinking and 10% halfhearted humility. His acknowledgments only complicate the subject further, as he remarks, “Chuck is certainly one of a kind, and it was impossible not to be inspired by his enthusiasm about what he views as a quest for the ultimate truth, regardless of the consequences” (emphasis added). I’m not sure how to read that aside, other than as an admission by Mezrich that Chuck’s delusional worldview is flawed and lacking in self-awareness. There is nowhere in the text itself that felt like an attempt to be tongue-in-cheek or to seriously engage with Chuck’s thinking.
There are problems outside of Chuck. Another issue for me was the style. The dialogue manufactured to fill in most scenes, to present something closer to a novel than a more removed non-fiction narrative, reads as cliche and stilted. Characters talk like they’re in a bland action movie, rather than like real people. Most of the characters, in fact, are not given the opportunity to be presented as the fully rounded humans they must be in reality, with the bare-bones writing directing most of the energy to Chuck’s delusional thinking and his cattle mutilation investigations. We’re constantly bombarded with exposition, like when Chuck “explains” Roswell to his wife, and actual dramatic tensions are typically skipped over. Yet anyone with even a passing interest in the paranormal is unlikely to uncover any new “facts” here, just the same lukewarm, regurgitated tales with even the most wildly speculative accounts presented as genuine possibilities. On top of all this, Mezrich makes the baffling decision to hop around in time, which had me shuffling between chapters to see whether events were happening before or after what I was currently reading; it didn’t build to anything, and a standard timeline would have only brought clarity, so it’s a truly puzzling choice.
A final failing of the book is its failure to wrestle with the nature of the investigations here. Chuck wants to be viewed as engaging in science, and Mezrich never challenges this. It’s a common failing of paranormal narratives; the story only works if you suspend your disbelief, so better not point out the shortcomings in that story. Chiefly, Chuck thinks it’s science to go to cattle mutilation sites days or weeks later, interview the ranch owners, take samples from the corpses, and record observations about the sites. He eventually finds a veterinary school that will autopsy the corpses, resulting only in a continued refrain that the cause of death cannot be explained. Chuck apparently has no interest in actually investigating what “normal” animal deaths are like. Despite there being fields of study into decomposition, Chuck remains focused only on those cases that are called in. Yes, they present interesting mysteries, but you’re never going to get an answer if you keep poking at the things that can’t be explained with the tools you have. His investigations could provide interesting data points in aggregate, but he’s looking for proof of a particular worldview rather than trying to understand what’s happening. Unknowns are, to him, proof of his beliefs, rather than gaps in the path to better understanding. His apparent lack of interest in seriously examining how animals die and how they decay means that he can’t seriously rule out other results. He’s spent years doing this and has never found anything conclusive, but he thinks the big breakthrough will be through continuing to focus only on the unexplained. In other words, he’s trying to be an expert without bothering with the basics. He’s not trained as a scientist, and he seems to view forensic investigations for a police case as interchangeable with the scientific method.
Chuck’s fixation on the outlier cases of animal deaths foreshadows his “UFO highway” hypothesis. You see, he gradually filled a map of the US with pins showing where paranormal events occurred. One night, he took down all the pins and restored only pins that correlated with “his recent [investigations of] mutilations,” “his own UFO investigations,” and MUFON files sent to him by his sister where the “events . . . could be corroborated by multiple witnesses, or that had enough circumstantial evidence for him to consider them verified.” Using a highly subjective process reliant upon his own experience and judgment, he produced a band of cases that were concentrated between the 36th and 38th parallel. It’s sort of an interesting coincidence, but when you start with the factors he used, it’s not weird that there would be some sort of geographically contained result. He even claims that the “only big hitter that’s missing” is his sacred Roswell, but attempts to explain this by saying that if the flying saucer that crashed had come from Kenneth Arnold’s Mount Rainier sighting, it would have to pass the band to get to Roswell. He does not seem to register that Mount Rainier, too, is outside of his predetermined band, and so the grandfather of UFO sightings would be excluded as well. And he outright ignores the many, many, many UFO sightings throughout the US and, for that matter, the world that don’t fit within this geographic band. Combating anecdotes with anecdotes is counterproductive, but I could point to famous UFO cases like the 1967 Malmstrom Air Force Base incident or the 1950 Mariana UFO video or the 1980 Rendlesham Forest incident, not to mention the numerous sighting reports from throughout the nation going into organizations like MUFON, or the sightings that have given rise to serious investigations by other countries that don’t even lie across this latitude (e.g., Brazil, Canada, France, and the UK). In other words, even without careful scrutiny, this hypothesis just flies in the face of reason, demanding that we give greater weight to reports verified by one man operating in one region of the country.
With the suggestion of his sister, Chuck then added pins of military bases and those “American Indian sites, both sacred and historic,” that happened to fall within this geographic band–a completely irrelevant data point, and highly selective since he’s not adding all the bases and indigenous communities or archaeological sites outside of that band. They ended up with a lot of pins on a narrow band of a map after this highly guided approach, arriving at a predetermined outcome. His sister even concedes, “Some of this has got to be coincidence. Some of it is probably related to the reporting mechanisms. Where we’re situated is informing the kind of reports we see, and the ones we can verify.” Yet still, these faithful believers choose to accept the findings because the map looks significant somehow. It’s a small matter to them that they can’t determine how or why it’s significant.
It does seem that some in the paranormal community have latched onto this. I’m not surprised. True believers engage in so much magical thinking and confirmation bias that anything vaguely interesting or curious gets grafted on to support the colossal, rickety structure of belief that has grown to define their worldviews. But it is nonetheless frustrating to see, and Mezrich, who appears to otherwise be a “mainstream” author writing about “serious” nonfiction subjects, should not have presented such a belief set without seriously engaging with and challenging it. Yes, perhaps it was obvious to Mezrich that these ideas should not be taken seriously, and perhaps he should be able to trust a reader to engage critically with a work. But all too often, that will not happen. His use of heavy redaction on the last page, to suggest that Chuck finally found some truly otherworldly occurrence that confirmed his beliefs, is an especially awful example of how he put flimsy beliefs ahead of rigorous thinking. I’m disappointed all around.