A fun novel with screaming flaws; you've just got to ignore the troubled love story, and focus on some genuinely interesting adventures with an adorable Alligator.
Carrying Albert Home lists its extremely simple, if slightly bizarre, premise perfectly in just a string of words on the cover: “The Somewhat True Story of a Man, his Wife, and her Alligator: Carrying Albert Home“.
Albert is the Alligator in question. A peculiar name for an Alligator, you might say – but this a peculiar Alligator we’re dealing with. Albert acts more like a household dog or a cat than a ferocious animal, yet is more than content with his lot in life. He resides with Homer and Elsie Hickam, in a West Virginia coal mining town, six years after America’s Great Depression. Of course, an Alligator is not concerned with the financial strife of his time, and enjoys his days in the Hickams’ small bathtub – much to Homer’s chagrin.
One day, after a humorous incident involving Albert stealing Homer’s trousers, he declares to his wife: “It’s me or that Alligator!”. What follows is a journey quite unlike any I’ve ever read, in which Homer, Elsie, Albert and a random Rooster (whose main purpose is for Homer to comment that his “presence on the journey was not entirely understood”) head for Orlando to take Albert home.
The novel is every bit as bizarre as it sounds. It’s author is Homer Hickam the Younger (author of October Sky), son of our protagonists, and the journey is based on stories his parents told him in his youth. Even he claims not to know how much truth there is to this story – in fact, he has no actual proof Albert the Alligator even existed – but the many adventures the unlikely foursome encounter are way too far fetched to be true. Not only do they encounter the author John Steinbeck at one point, they also meet his main writing rival, Ernest Hemingway! They join a baseball team, rob a bank, blow up a mill, become movie stars, join the coastguard, and much more; all on one, admittedly lengthy, road trip from West Virginia to Florida.
Your next thought may be that it sounds more like a book for children than for adults. In fact, the prose style of Hickam the Younger suits a younger audience; which can make the reading of Carrying Albert Home feel stilted and awkward, lacking in complexity – and inherently ‘dumbed down’. Adding to the off-tempo feel of the story is the crafting of the book as an anthology, exploring many separate adventures the foursome have on their journey. Positively the worst part of the book is how they bump into ‘villains’ Huddie and Slick at every turn, who pose very little threat to Homer, Elsie and Albert in any way. It feels as though Hickam the Younger has just tried to cram in an extra few characters to pull the separate strands of the story together, but it ultimately cheapens the volume as an entirety.
The book can be read on several different levels. In my mind, it is at its best is when viewed as a fun romp (with some tales that are more interesting than others), an adorable Alligator at its centre, and some vivid imagery of what it was like to live in 30s America. At its deepest level, Albert himself is quite insignificant, merely a plot device for Homer and Elsie’s struggling marriage. Both treat each other quite horribly, especially Elsie, and it’s hard to find either protagonist remotely three-dimensional or likeable. Slight spoiler: they predictably learn to love each other as the journey progresses, though the story doesn’t reflect this very well – there is no turning point for either of them in realising they need to value one another.
Though I found many issues with Carrying Albert Home, it is enjoyable read for one reason alone: that damn, completely unrealistic Alligator. It must be the cutest animal I’ve ever found in a book. Just next time you see a real Alligator, don’t expect it to “smile” at you, make “yeah yeah yeah” sounds, or roll over expecting a stomach rub!
Carrying Albert Home, by Homer Hickman, is available to buy now via HarperCollins.