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“The Promise of the Pelican: A Novel” By: Roy Hoffman

“The Promise of the Pelican: A Novel”

Author: Roy Hoffman

Publisher: Arcade Publishers

New York

Pages: 288

Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)

Novel Explores Law and Southern Xenophobia

Roy Hoffman of Fairhope, with two volumes of essays and, now, four novels, has become one of Alabama’s best storytellers.

In these novels he has carved out for himself a kind of niche, noticing that there is more ethnic diversity in Alabama than just black and white, and the relationships, however fraught or stressful, between these two groups.

In his first novel, “Almost Family” (1983), Hoffman began his exploration of this territory, with a story about a Jewish wife and mother, Vivian Gold, and African-American cook and housekeeper Nebraska Waters.

Then in 2004 he published “Chicken Dreaming Corn,” making further use of his own unusual family history. His grandfather had come to America from Romania.

 In 2014 we got “Come Landfall” in which some of the characters are Vietnamese boat people escaped from Southeast Asia and now shrimping and practicing Buddhism on our Gulf Coast.

“The Promise of the Pelican” continues this exploration. The protagonist, 82-year-old Hank Weinberg, is a recently widowed and reluctantly retired defense attorney living in Fairhope, spending a lot of time on the pier with the other old guys, although he is far from a typical Alabama good old boy.

A Holocaust survivor from Amsterdam, at five Hank was smuggled out to England and then the U.S., but all his family were lost to the death camps. Hank thinks about this childhood tragedy every day, in a sense never getting over the loss, suffering lifetime PTSD.

But he will have plenty to keep his mind occupied.

Hank and his Honduran helper Lupita, who fled the vicious gangs of her homeland, are caring for Roger, his four-year-old special-needs grandson.

Roger’s mom, Hank’s daughter Vanessa, is divorced and an alcoholic in rehab. She is going to need more than twelve steps.

It is a cliché among novelists that a most satisfactory way to proceed is to metaphorically get your character up a tree and throw rocks at him, make everything worse and worse.

Hoffman really does that.

Lupita’s brother, Julio, a good fellow, a worker at the Point Clear golf course and hotel, comes upon a recently stabbed man. He gets incriminating evidence—blood—on himself, then foolishly runs.

 Daughter Vanessa, who is herself an attorney and should know better, elopes, as they say from the rehab facility, flees town, gets drunk, goes to Mexico. Her behavior causes the sensible reader to scream in agony: “Don’t do that. You are so stupid! You are making everything worse!”

She can’t hear you, of course.

Hank must come out of retirement to defend Julio. Although there is, in “Pelican,” a murder and a mystery, the focus is on defense, not sleuthing to find the killer.

 We learn again that the public doesn’t like defense attorneys. Some think they’re helping villains to escape punishment, and the clients, usually thoroughly guilty, are angry because their attorney couldn’t get them off or get them a lighter sentence.

In this case, Weinberg also gets to experience first-hand the xenophobia against Hispanics. Sadly, he thinks one of his fellow UA Law school grads, now U.S. Attorney General, has “inflamed” that fear.

 Hoffman, whose father at 97 was the oldest practicing lawyer in Alabama, cannot resist giving Hank a few smart remarks for those who have ears.

About lawyers needing to bring in jury consultants, like TV’s “Bull,” Hank says lawyers used to do that themselves and “the profession had slid from the high standards of his beginnings.”

Lawyers’ faces beaming down from billboards make him feel “His honorable calling was diminished by manipulative marketing.”

The title? As with all Hoffman novels the emphasis is on family, and legend tells us that the pelican, a devoted parent, will, if necessary, “pierce its own breast for blood to feed the starving chicks.”

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.