Howard Anderson says he just wants to live long enough to finish his second novel. The publisher’s bio for the 69-year-old debut novelist states that during his “varied life,” Anderson has flown choppers in Vietnam, driven trucks in Houston, worked on fishing boats in Alaska, toiled in steel mills in Pittsburgh, written scripts in Hollywood and served as legal counsel for the New Mexico Governor’s Commission on Organized Crime Prevention. Anderson, who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1973, lives in Las Cruces, where he currently works as a defense attorney for Mexican nationals accused of crimes in the United States.
“That bio is much abridged,” Anderson told me in a recent phone interview.
His novel, Albert of Adelaide, began 20 years ago as a bedtime story for a girlfriend’s daughter. The title character is a platypus who escapes from the Adelaide Zoo and begins a quest to find “Old Australia,” a fabled region “without people and without zoos.” Albert finds such a place—but it’s not what he expects. In something of a post-apocalyptic landscape, Albert finds animals wearing clothing, eating sardines from cans and drinking plenty of alcohol. The animals also have a monetary system, which encourages greed, gunfire and bloodshed. Lots of bloodshed.
Although the book stars cute little animals—wombats, kangaroos and bandicoots—it’s not the child-friendly tale Anderson began writing two decades ago. While Anderson says the book is “just fine for 12- and 13-year-olds,” some parents may disagree when they read passages such as the following: “He just walked over to the kangaroo and broke his neck,” or “One of Albert’s spurs had caught him in the jugular, and blood was pouring down his front and over his pants.”
Recalling The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, Albert of Adelaide addresses themes of friendship and loyalty, prejudice and heroism, and lots of Old (U.S.) West-style good vs. evil. Blurbs and reviews contain the words “fun” and “delightful.” Do not believe them. While the book delivers some comic scenes and witty dialogue, Albert isn’t the feel-good summer read it’s being billed as. Anderson describes his book as “Lonesome Dove recast for a platypus, wombat and dingoes.”
It’s certainly deeper than, say, the screenplay for a sequel to Annie, one title on Anderson’s screenwriting resume. Despite his work history, Anderson has always been a writer at heart, and has 11 screenplays, a coffee-table book (now out of print), several published short stories and now Albert under his belt. He says he’s always enjoyed sharing a good tale.
“I’m not a Texan,” says Anderson, who’s nonetheless spent a lot of time in the state. “I’m a Westerner.” He gives Texans credit for being good storytellers. “They can tell a story about a pig for an hour and a half and keep it entertaining,” he says.
Given Anderson’s Hollywood ties and the publicity from which his book is benefiting, I asked if we can expect to see Albert of Adelaide on the big screen in the near future. Anderson took a moment to respond. “You know,” he says, “I told myself that I was going to write a book that couldn’t possibly be made into a movie. Animation has caught up with me, though.”
The book would surely have to be overhauled to become a family-friendly Pixar film. Sure, Bambi’s mother was killed by a hunter, but her death doesn’t compare to that of Albert’s mother, who is torn apart by a wild dog. Albert then loses himself in a rage and kills the dog in revenge. “The memories were just pictures without sound or movement: a dead dog with his lips curled back over bloody teeth.” That scene alone merits a PG-13 rating.
Not that Anderson is sweating the movie thing. His creative energy is focused on a sequel to Albert of Adelaide, about which he’s tight-lipped. He’ll only say that it’s about a supporting character from the book, a raccoon who saves Albert from harm time and again. Anderson’s goal is simply to finish his second book.
Observer Fiction Editor David Duhr is co-founder of WriteByNight, a writing center in Austin.