‘More Peter Rabbit than The Old Man and the Sea’ – Albert of Adelaide by Howard L Anderson

Even before the first page of the first chapter of this debut novel, there’s a sense that this story has already started. The back cover introduces the cast of characters, including a pyromaniac wombat and a bartending kangaroo. Inside, the author information lists a string of Howard L Anderson’s previous occupations, covering his time with a helicopter battalion in Vietnam and as legal counsel for the New Mexico Organized Crime Commission. The dedication follows, with thanks not to a beloved family member or friend, but to a mysterious scarred Australian soldier vaguely remembered from a bar in Sydney.

Anderson took a trip with the nameless soldier and got lost on the New South Wales rail network. When the novel opens, the hero, Albert the platypus, is following the train tracks north from Adelaide. He has escaped from the zoo, and is searching for a mythical utopia in the desert where ‘Old Australia’ still exists. Along the way, he meets Jack the Wombat, and before long he’s wearing clothes, throwing his first punch, drinking his first beer, spending money and gambling. Soon after, his little duck-billed face fills wanted posters, accusing him of killing the bar-owning kangaroo, burning down a town and ‘selling guns to non-marsupials’.

Albert is on the run, but is distracted from his search for Old Australia by advertisements for the Gates of Hell. There, he is robbed by a wallaby, named Bertram, and his crazy possum assistant, Theodore. Albert is rescued by the sudden, and convenient, appearance of an American immigrant raccoon, called TJ. After their escape, Albert could continue his search for the tranquility of Old Australia, but for some reason – perhaps purely to keep the story alive – he decides instead to follow TJ back to the Gates of Hell to attack Bertram and Theodore once more.

This decision leads, obviously, to more troublesome encounters that inevitably end in more lucky, last-minute interventions. While Albert escapes unscathed, his new-found guardian animals invariably end up either injured or incarcerated, requiring reciprocal rescue missions. But Albert’s heroics are, for the most part, as passive as the rest of his actions. He does put his poisonous platypus leg spurs to deadly effect on one occasion, but it’s usually the convenient recurrence of incidental characters who end up saving his friends, and the day. Even at the final battle, a mission contrived by Bertram to capture the outlaw platypus, Albert is content to take cover in the gun smoke while his allies are slaughtered.

But this is a fable, and as such, it carries a message. It’s probably something to do with friendship, and maybe fame. But it could also be a tale of caution. Do as Albert did, perhaps; when your best friend is in mortal danger, build a camp and wait five days while you let an old cripple look for him instead. There is also some allusion to history being in the hands of those who write it, but the solution offered seems to be to kill the writer rather than destroy the writing.

I kept reading, not because I was desperate to find out what would happen to Albert, but because, after all that early promise, I was hoping for some kind of Life of Pi ending. It didn’t come. Sadly, the upshot is that, with all his friends either dead or maimed for life, Albert can finally go on his merry way to find that Old Australia he sought so badly in those first few pages.

Any Cop?: Anderson has that deceptively simple style of writing, but it’s more Peter Rabbit than The Old Man and the Sea. The carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs certainly make Albert of Adelaide an easy read, but if it’s a logical plot you want then you’d better stick with Peter Rabbit. Even Hemingway’s plots are more coherent.

Jim Dempsey

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