If James Joyce can devote an entire novel to one day in the life of the people of Dublin, why can’t Homer Hickam devote a novel to the delivery of Albert the alligator to Florida? Especially when that journey treats readers to labor strikes, car chases, hijinks on the high seas, Hollywood movies and a fateful hurricane—not to mention cameo appearances by literary competitors John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. Add to this a rooster perched imperturbably on Albert’s head, and you have the makings of an intentionally improbable, bizarre trip through Southern Americana that is a tall tale blend of fact and fiction.
Homer Hickam Sr., father to the author, is a coal miner from West Virginia. His wife, Elsie, is an aspiring writer and friend to God’s scalier creations. They decide that Albert should be restored to his proper habitat and embark on a journey south. Along the way, they are derailed by the unlikeliest of misadventures, but ones that bring the estranged couple closer together.
Carrying Albert Home is set in the early 20th century, when the coal mines of Appalachia were a focal point of American radicalism, when Mother Jones prowled the hills and mine workers fought pitched battles with the owners of company towns. America’s various Red Scares and concessions by capitalists and governments alike have erased much of this history, but Hickam reminds us that there was once a formidable and violent opposition to capital in the US of A.
But that’s about as serious as Hickam gets. The novel is mostly a lark or a farce, an amalgam of fact and an almost Walter Mitty-esque degree of fancy, evoking (because of the deadly yet indispensable animal) Life of Pi and (because of the trope of life as journey) Huckleberry Finn. Indeed, it might appeal most to younger readers, for whom the recurring joke that nearly every character seems to think Albert is a crocodile, only to be mildly corrected by Homer, will never get old.
The poignant parts for adults, however, will be the interstitial chapters, reminiscent of Hemingway’s In Our Time, when Hickam writes about the real Homer and Elsie, his late parents. In these spare and sad vignettes of two beloved real-life characters, Hickam provides epiphanies that at times approach those of Joyce, that clairvoyant of the dead.