David Darlington's "Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles" gave me an epiphany about the nature of extraterrestrial life that I will share at the end of this review. But first, know that Area 51 is a secret air base in the Nevada desert about 100 miles northwest as the crow flies (or saucer saucates) from Las Vegas. Area 51 is where the government ostensibly tests duplicated alien technology. There may also be aliens themselves stashed there, critters resembling the ambassador that stepped off the mothership in "Close Encounters" (who, in turn, was a dead ringer for one of the bodies found in Roswell, N.M., so long ago).
Whatever is going on in Area 51, the governor of Nevada recently renamed nearby Interstate 375 the "Extraterrestrial Highway." Darlington knows about desert highways. His last book, "The Mojave," was a lively chronicle of that Californian dry land where the author found a UFO nut or two. Nevada, however, seems to be filled with nothing but such folks (hereafter called UFONs). Darlington's new book is primarily set in the Mecca of UFONs, the Little A-Le-Inn motel in Rachel, Nev. There, he recorded pages of dialogue that sound like this: "The saucer that Lazar worked on at S-4 boasted three gravity amplifiers and a reactor. The latter, which was about the size of a basketball, contained a small particle accelerator, in which a chunk of 115 was bombarded with protons."
In addition to dry techno-speak, one of the UFONs has a poster of a saucer flying over the words, "They're here." Ah! Just like Fox Mulder's "I Want to Believe" poster on "The X-Files." In fact, "Area 51" is the book Mulder would write if he weren't a fictional FBI agent. After all, Fox isn't a particularly wild guy. And neither is Darlington. At no point do either one of them pull a Hunter S. Thompson on us. "Area 51" is no "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," beginning: "We were under the saucers around Papoose Lake when the drugs began to take hold." But this complaint is only a matter of taste. Darlington remains a fine Sunday-morning magazine kind of writer. The only "druggy" prose is spoken by the UFONs themselves.
As for the aliens, they're dull as dishwater. Which is my epiphany. Aliens don't care about culture -- they've never visited the Louvre or hung out backstage at a Stones concert. Aliens have never abducted anyone interesting, like rude NBA coaches. Worse, aliens have no sense of humor or mischief. If I came from outer space, I'd land on the White House lawn and demand that President Clinton reveal his crooked penis.
Instead, aliens hang around with career military personnel in the desert, which is to say aliens have as much personality as turtles. Now, let me make it clear, this is my take on ETs. Darlington himself reveals little of his. Neither is he judgmental about the kooks he investigates. Not even when one of them reveals that those missing children on the side of milk cartons are all organ donors to alien research. It did dawn on me while I was reading his fun -- but not fun enough -- book that Darlington could be an alien abductee himself. If he is, I hope he gets picked up again. This time by the same saucer that abducted Hunter S. Thompson so long ago.