Ambition, Folksy Charm, and an Alligator: 'Carrying Albert Home'

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.

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

Publisher: William Morrow
Length: 390 pages
Author: Homer Hickam
Price: $15.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-07

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.