Ambition, Folksy Charm, and an Alligator

'Carrying Albert Home'

by John Paul

6 October 2016

Homer Hickman's story offers a light-hearted, ultimately feel good series of stories that are more often than not as amusing as they are poignant.
 
cover art

Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator

Homer Hickam

(William Morrow)
US: Jul 2016

How does one go about separating the line between fact and fiction when each seem to coexist when presented through a family’s oral history? Do we believe the stories, taking them at face value? Or do we search for the grain of truth within each and take comfort in knowing that even the most fantastical of stories tend to be rooted in some semblance of the truth? In the case of Homer Hickam, the choice seemed to be embrace the legend, acknowledge the facts and build upon each to create a series of increasingly implausible, extraordinary situations that play to the classical notion of the hero’s journey, with a love story thrown in for good measure.

At its heart, Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator is the story of the younger Hickam’s parents, Elsie Lavender and Homer Hickam, Sr., and the tenuous nature of their marital situation. Having been high school sweethearts, the pair split up when Elsie jilted Homer following his marriage proposal and moved to Florida. There she met and become enamored with Buddy Ebsen—one of several facts easier to believe as fiction.

When Ebsen moved to New York to try his hand at acting, Elsie found herself returning to both her Wester Virginia home and Homer Sr. Following their subsequent marriage, Elsie received, as a wedding gift from Ebsen, the titular alligator. This sets off a string of events within Elsie that sets the plot in motion. Realizing her life was passing her by in Coalwood, she began resenting her husband and once more pining for Ebsen and the life she had hoped to have in Florida. Thus begins the couple’s journey south under the pretense of returning Albert to his home state. Homer Sr., aware of his wife’s growing dissatisfaction and frustration, willingly goes along, constantly bending to the will of his demonstrative wife.

From here, the story of how Albert the alligator returned to his native Florida becomes filled with a number of outrageous twists and turns that it often reads more like a collection of tall tales than a linear narrative. Much like the Albert Finney (Ewan McGregor) character in the film Big Fish, whose many anecdotes seemed too far-fetched to be rooted in reality, the truth is discovered to be some combination of fantasy and reality. In both stories, it’s up to the son to differentiate between fact and fiction and ultimately decide what makes for a better story. Because the truth can be just as hard to believe, the lines become irrevocably blurred the more the story is told. It’s the power of suggestion helping to rewrite the history existing solely as a memory.

Along the way to Florida, Elsie and Homer Sr. encounter all sorts of trouble and fantastical situations, meeting up with the likes of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, a serial killer couple, a Hollywood production team, strikers on the verge of battle, and a pair of bumbling criminals who always seem to show up at the exact wrong time. In each, the characters seem almost distractedly aloof, lost in their own world and immune to the sensational nature of the situation itself. Elsie in particular retains a steely reserve and rather cold demeanor to all but Albert throughout, leaving much of the omniscient narrative on the shoulders of Homer Sr.

Because of this, the primary tension in each situation exists between Elsie and Homer Sr. This marital discord tends to push things farther and farther beyond the realm of plausibility. Yet within each individual adventure, they are once again draw together, venturing ever southward, Homer Sr. behind the wheel of their Buick motor car. Despite much of the action surrounding Homer Sr. and, to a lesser extent Albert, this is really Elsie’s archetypical hero’s journey of self-discovery as she wrestles with her feelings towards her husband and the imagined life should could have led in Florida. Here she’s attempting to follow her own wants, needs and desires while also working to find her place in the world. Something beyond wanderlust, hers is a desire to transcend the life to which she’s been confined in hopes of finding her true purpose.

Of course knowing the ultimate outcome via the presence of Homer Jr. as the story’s author and intermediary, collecting these stories through offhand comments that lead to fuller disclosures, tends to lessen the overall tension. Yet it still proves somewhat miraculous the level of patience Homer Sr. has for his bride as she time and again pushes him to his very limits. So committed is he to her, however, that even in the most trying of situations—namely the portion of the journey during which he and Albert become lost at sea, only to be saved by Elsie who is ultimately happier to see her alligator than her husband—he remains steadfastly true to his love for this increasingly impossible woman.

While many of the stories are entertaining in and of themselves, Hickam unfortunately spends far more time than necessary in the weeds, pursuing dead-end plot threads and excessive narrative details that ultimately end up bogging down what, with a little editing, could have been a far more jauntily entertaining read. As is, there are plenty of moments to like throughout, but the reader has to wade through pages and pages of filler in order to get to the meat of the story.

The passages with Hemingway in advance of the massive hurricane that decimated much of south Florida just after Labor Day in 1935 are entertaining, as are those with Steinbeck and his time spent with the striking workers who helped provide the seeds of inspiration for his Grapes of Wrath—a name suggested by Elsie who felt Steinbeck’s original title, The Harvest Gypsies was terrible. But the scenes by the sea in the Carolinas and the extended narrative around Hollywood production tend to drag, grinding the narrative flow to a crushing halt.

In the midst of all this, Albert the alligator— constantly misidentified as a crocodile and thus establishing one of several running gags that quickly wears out its welcome, falling into rote predictability—rarely serves as anything but the calm at the center of the storm. He’s tame to the point of sitting in Elsie’s lap as they drive ever southward, rarely is driven to anger and, more times than not, is described as communicating via a contented sound while witnessing the action. He’s nearly as inconsequential to the narrative thread as the mysterious rooster who crops up time and again with seemingly no real purpose beyond the potential for another side story.

While the narrative’s linearity is linked by the trio’s journey south, Carrying Albert Home often feels more like a collection of stories featuring many of the same characters than a cohesive whole. Time and space are bent and reshaped multiple times to the point where they no longer carry any meaning within the story, save the approximate time period being that of the Great Depression. It’s a light, often amusing story that would have been better served by a bit more meticulous editing to ensure snappier plotting. As it stands, Carrying Albert Home offers a light-hearted, ultimately feel good series of stories that are more often than not as amusing as they are poignant.

Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator

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