Only a person who hasn’t a curious bone in his or her body would be able to resist reading a book titled “Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator.” Oh, and in between the title and subtitle are the words “A Novel.” I am nothing if not curious, so it’s not surprising that I was hooked before I got to the first page of Homer Hickam’s latest book.
If you’ve read Hickam’s wonderful memoir, “Rocket Boys,” or seen “October Sky,” the film adapted from it, you’ll know that he grew up grew up in a West Virginia coal mining town called Coalwood, and became obsessed with amateur rocketry. (He later went on to work as an engineer for NASA, by the way.) In “Carrying Albert Home,” Hickam returns to Coalwood, but this time focuses on his parents, Homer Sr. and Elsie, and the stories (real or apocryphal) they told their sons about the early years of their marriage. Many of these stories involved Albert, an alligator Elsie received as a wedding present from the first love of her life, the actor, Buddy Ebsen.
In this picaresque tale that is really a love story, we learn how Elsie met and developed a huge crush on young Ebsen in Florida and was devastated when he went off to New York to seek his fortune. She returns home, marries Homer and receives that fateful wedding present. Elsie lavishes more of her affection on the charming little beast than she does on her husband, singing to him, feeding him chicken parts, and walking him on a leash like a dog, and Albert adores her. Homer tolerates this odd friendship until the day Albert climbs out of the bathtub while Homer is sitting on the toilet and grabs the poor man’s pants, sending him running half-naked into the yard, much to the neighbors’ amusement. Not surprisingly, Homer issues an ultimatum: “Me or that alligator….Choose. Either me or him. That’s it.” Reluctantly, Elsie agrees, but insists that they take Albert home to Orlando, Florida, thus launching one of the strangest road trips I’ve ever encountered in literature.
Author Stephen King writes: “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie,” and this statement seems to apply perfectly to “Carrying Albert Home,” because what comes next is the series of very much fictional adventures that befall Homer, Elsie and Albert (as well as a rooster who attaches himself to their little troupe for reasons that never become clear) as they make their way from West Virginia to Florida. Since the book is set during the Depression Era, Hickam has his protagonists encounter vagrant camps, labor strikes, bootleggers and bank robbers. They meet John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, experience the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, and even find themselves appearing as actors in a movie. Obviously, these encounters are fiction, but for the most part, fun.
I say “for the most part” because often the adventures are so far-fetched that they strain my “willing suspension of disbelief,” and frankly, some of them are just too long. I often felt impatient with the silliness, since it pulled me away from the real story – perhaps the true one – which is so engaging that I actually resented the fictional side-trips. The thing is, Hickam is at his best when he explores the characters of his parents and the changing nature of their relationship.
Homer Sr. is a tall, handsome, blue-eyed man who can be both patient and stubborn. He loves his prickly, difficult wife, but doesn’t know how to reach Elsie, who is often cold and unkind to him. Yet he persists, and we can’t help but love him for this. We also have to admire his stubbornness. He knows who he is: a coal miner. And he insists that after they’ve carried Albert home, they will return their own home and continue their lives there. Elsie, on the other hand, seethes with a Scarlet O’Hara-like dissatisfaction with her lot in life. Beautiful, intelligent, and romantic, she dreams of a life more exciting and glamorous than that of a miner’s wife. While she loves Homer, she’s stingy with her affection. But as the story progresses, the young couple comes to appreciate and understand each other, and after a final meeting with Ebsen, who helps them find a safe home for Albert in a golf-course lake, Elsie comes to terms with her dreams. Flinging herself into her husband’s patiently waiting arms, she cries, “Homer, carry me home!”
My father always said, “Never spoil a good story for the sake of the truth,” but in the case of “Carrying Albert Home,” the opposite was almost the case. Fortunately, Hickam manages to get at the truth of his story and realize his intent, which is to tell us about what his parents discovered: “…heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.”