ALBERT OF ADELAIDE, by Howard L. Anderson. Twelve, 225 pp. $24.99.
Albert, our hero, is a duck-billed platypus, one of those venomous, aquatic, egg-laying mammals that inspired cries of hoax among European naturalists when the discovery of the antipodean species was first announced. In this quirky novel for adults, the platypus still plays the role of an unlikely curiosity. He's a recent escapee from the Adelaide zoo, with only a soft-drink bottle to call his own, on a search for Old Australia, a "Promised Land" of liberty and justice that the other captive animals used to talk about.
Along the way, Albert befriends or battles rough-hewn characters reminiscent of the Australian children's classic "The Magic Pudding." There's an arsonist wombat, a wrestling Tasmanian devil, a stowaway raccoon from San Francisco and a couple of boozy bandicoots, as well as countless kangaroos and wallabies and unpredictable bands of roving dingoes.
All survive by relying on their native wit, combined with a makeshift form of bush justice and a steady awareness of the need for making interspecies alliances. But even though the platypus inspires some great deeds of friendship, he is never fully accepted.
And rare are the moments in the arid Australian desert when he can sink into a pool of water and just be himself: "For the hour he hunted, he wasn't Albert, late of the zoo in Adelaide. He was just an ordinary platypus in a water hole. It was a good feeling."
Nor can Albert escape his past. His psyche is shaped by characters who never appear in these pages: men and dogs who killed his mother, removed him from his idyllic riverbank home and put him on display. Memories of life in captivity haunt him, conjuring nightmarish visions of staring "faces smeared with cotton candy and jaws that dribbled popcorn."
For some readers, "Albert of Adelaide" will recall the unnerving allegories of "Watership Down" or "Animal Farm," but this is a gentler affair. Albert is the creation of a man whose biography suggests he understands the experience of not fitting in, of being neither fish nor fowl. Howard L. Anderson has flown in helicopters in Vietnam, driven trucks in Houston, worked on fishing boats in Alaska and written scripts for Hollywood. Now in his late 60s, he represents Mexicans charged with crimes in the United States.
His first novel is a rollicking adventure story and ultimately an exploration of the nature of prejudice. In this majority-marsupial world, you can't help reflecting on how different Albert's fate might have been if he'd been born with a pouch instead of a bill and webbed feet.