“. . . a series of entertaining, even endearing characters . . . make this a worthy read.”
It’s not masterful, nor is it great. But it is in fact very good—or at the least very good-ish, the sort of book for which summers on the Vineyard were created.
Albert of Adelaide, Howard Anderson’s debut novel, written by the 69-year-old author after a lifetime of colorful careers including Hollywood script writer, Pittsburgh steel worker, and helicopter pilot in Vietnam, is a colorful work, the sort of story in which talking animals wear tweed vests and search for the “Old Australia,” the mythic land in which a platypus could roam free.
Our hero Albert, you see, is that platypus, something that the various kangaroos and wallabies and dingoes of the Outback have never seen before. It is easy, therefore, for them to underestimate at every turn this escapee of the Adelaide Zoo, just as it is easy for this animal raised in captivity to underestimate his own ability to think for himself and to act.
But then that’s the whole point.
As the author puts it, writing about the platypus:
“All decisions had been made for him in the zoo, but now he had to make them for himself. The more he made, the easier it became, but it was also becoming obvious to him that some decisions were better than others and that a really bad one could have serious consequences.
“Albert stood up, tightened the shoulder straps on his rucksack, and began moving deeper into the canyon.”
Albert, lacking little but the ruby slippers, must learn to navigate through the land that we now call Oz, and, with the help of a pyromaniac Wombat named Jack and American outlaw raccoon named TJ, among others, in order to find Old Australia in order to achieve the happy ending.
But will he?
That is the ultimate question and there are others at every turn as Albert learns first hand the consequences of decision making. Enough hijinks ensue to insure a sunburn, as the reader tries to get in just one more chapter before having to move to the shade.
Everything is fluid in the Outback, the dessert surrounding not withstanding: the nature of good and evil, societal roles and mores, even one’s hierarchy within the cultural environs. The only thing that withstands change is friendship, as Dorothy quickly learned when her house landed on that witch, and Albert learns the hard way, by nearly dying of thirst in the arid stretches of Old Australia.
And yet, through it all, it is the nature and cost of freedom itself that is the ultimate theme in play here. As the author puts it:
“Up until his escape from Adelaide, Albert’s life had been one of confinement and regular habits.”
“There was someone staring at Albert every moment of the fourteen hours a day the zoo was open. He couldn’t escape from sight anywhere in the enclosure. They pointed at him, talked about him, made faces at him, and sometimes would throw things at him to make him scramble into the water tank.
“The water tank was the worst. There was a glass wall on one side of the tank where people could watch him swim. The glass wall was always clouded by algae growing on it, and the water magnified the faces watching him. Large mouths opened and closed and large eyes blinked ciphered messages to each other behind the blue-green scum on the glass. Albert avoided it as much as he could.”
In a moment of literal abandon, Albert trades security for freedom, order for chaos, and seeks instead the mythic Old Australia, a place in which animals like him live unfettered lives. That neither Albert nor any of the others he meets ever quite connects the legends with the reality of an Outback populated by talking animals, wearing clothing and living in deserted towns undoubtedly built by human hands only adds to the peculiar charm of the tale as our individual abilities to recognize the visions that guide us when they become reality is called into question.
Author Howard Anderson will likely not be placed on the short list for any national book prizes for Albert. But he has created a series of entertaining, even endearing characters that make this a worthy read.
He has also created a world in which a Tasmanian devil named Muldoon holding up some canned goods and saying to Albert, “Tell him I’ll save the sardines until he gets here,” becomes a moment of deep and stirring emotion, friendships being the valuable and rugged things that they are in Old Australia.
And that is quite the accomplishment for any first-time novelist.