A duck-billed platypus is the unlikely hero of 69-year-old lawyer Howard Anderson’s debut novel, Albert of Adelaide, a pleasing adventure through the outback that tackles big themes while celebrating both friendship and independence.

Anderson, who flew a helicopter in Vietnam and has taken turns as a fisherman in Alaska, steel mill worker, truck driver, scriptwriter and legal counsel for the New Mexico Organized Crime Commission, knows a little about adventure. His tale is infused with this spirit of derring-do. We meet Albert, newly escaped from the Adelaide Zoo and marching through the desert, close to death. He’s in search of the fabled Old Australia, a land of peace and freedom where he can perhaps find others of his kind. He would have perished if he hadn’t stumbled upon Jack, a solitary but welcoming wombat who turns out to be a pyromaniac. It only takes one encounter with “civilization”—a mining town populated by kangaroos, bandicoots and wallabies—for the mild-mannered Albert to become a wanted animal, simply because he is different. On the run, Albert learns how to survive in his new world and, set upon by the inhabitants of “Hell,” discovers a toughness he never quite knew he possessed.

Albert’s charm and the work’s parade of memorable characters—Roger and Alvin, the drunk and vaguely gay bandicoots; Theodore the hissing, murderous possum; TJ the vagabond raccoon from San Francisco; Muldoon, the wrestling Tasmanian devil whose fame has passed him by—make its often dry and passive prose forgivable. Albert’s changing desires—is it the simple river life of his youth he wants?—and his loyalty to his new, first, friends are touching. He grows as he remembers how to use his poisonous leg spurs in defense of his friends and himself. He also weighs questions of good and evil, addiction and his assumptions about other species, even as he is persecuted himself.

Anderson’s shoot-‘em-up romp, though bloody, remains somehow cozy even when it goes dark. Friendship, especially its necessity for survival, never leaves the picture. Anderson has built a desert world that could be scary for a lone zoo platypus—thankfully, he is never quite alone, and his story will leave readers smiling.

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