Sunday, September 18, 2016

Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson

One day in July, I was perusing my shelves, and decided to read the weirdest book I had there. The competition was fierce, but I ended up with something unique: a talking-animal fable about a platypus looking for the fabled human-free land of Old Australia, written by an American immigration lawyer.

The book is Albert of Adelaide. The author is Howard Anderson. And it was published by Twelve back in 2012 in what I have to assume was supposed to be a big splash -- they are famously an imprint that publishes only one book a month and makes a big deal about it -- but I'd never heard of it other than the galley I picked up that year at BEA and mostly forgot about afterward. And, even in the category of beast fables, it's quirky.

Albert is a mild-mannered platypus who has lived his adult life in a zoo in Adelaide after a psychologically harrowing experience with dogs as a young puggle, but broke free from captivity to find the land where the creatures of Australia live free and upright, far from man. And so he gets off the train he stowed away on, somewhere deep in the deserts of the Northern Territory, and ends up in a lawless region populated by suspicious kangaroos, drunken bandicoots, murderous dingoes, a vindictive con-man team of possum and wallaby, and Albert's new best friend, the pyromaniac wombat Jack. (Plus TJ, an American ex-sailor whose animal species is carefully left unspecified.)

Picaresque adventures follow, as Albert comes out of his metaphoric shell and learns more about this harsh land, along with more violence and death than most readers would expect from an animal story not called Watership Down. The whole thing is told in a muted manly-man tone, to make it the story of tough animals doing rough things in a dangerous world, with the romance of adventure lurking around every corner.

It is exceedingly odd. It's successful at what it sets out to do, as far as I can tell, though whether that thing is worthwhile is a more difficult question. One might have hoped for a story like this to be told by an Australian, for example, but inspiration strikes where it finds fertile ground, and this inspiration hit Mr. Anderson. And I can say without hesitation that there is no other book like Albert of Adelaide.

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