By Ron Charles
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; C04
PARROT & OLIVIER IN AMERICA
By Peter Carey
380 pp. $26.95
Two-time Booker winner Peter Carey is finally giving us some love. The Australian writer has been holed up in America for 20 years, but always setting his fantastic novels someplace else. Sure, "Theft" (2006) dropped in briefly on the Manhattan art scene, and "His Illegal Self" (2008) began in New York City, but it was desperate to get away and flew off to Sydney by page 23. Even now that he's finally dared to write about his long-term hosts, he comes dressed not as a fellow resident but as our most famous visitor: Alexis de Tocqueville. His new wanderlusting novel, "Parrot & Olivier in America," whips up that young Frenchman who sailed to the United States in 1831 and described this democratic experiment with more insight and prescience than anyone before or since.
Tocqueville, recast here in garish tones as Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, strolls out of his famous "Democracy in America" and into the pages of this kaleidoscopic story along with the whole grasping, bragging, bargaining cast of our ravenous nation. It's another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey's masterpieces, "Jack Maggs," which pulled on a loose thread in Dickens's "Great Expectations," and "True History of the Kelly Gang," which blasted through the life of a legendary Australian outlaw.
Clearly, Carey read a whole library of history and biography to create this meticulously decorated 1830s world: He knows -- or seems to know -- everything, from the upheavals of French governments to the artistry of English counterfeiters to the crosscurrents of Tocqueville's mind. Still, as the copyright page claims, "This is a work of fiction," often an outrageous and witty one. History provides the basic outline for "Parrot & Olivier in America," and much of its commentary comes from "Democracy in America," but Carey, like Tocqueville, is a promiscuous traveler who departs from the map whenever he feels the urge. (For a straight retelling of the expedition, read "Tocqueville's Discovery of America," a wonderfully concise new book by Harvard scholar Leo Damrosch.)
Carey's most marvelous invention is Tocqueville's traveling companion. In real life, the French commissioner toured America with his insightful young friend Gustave de Beaumont. But here Olivier is accompanied by a 49-year-old engraver-spy-servant named John Larrit, or Parrot, "the sort of narrow eyed and haughty character on whose account one might wisely cross the road."
For dramatic purposes, it's a brilliant alteration of history and a source of rich comedy in what quickly becomes an early 18th-century "Odd Couple." Olivier's mother has engineered this trip to get her son out of France's deadly political climate. Parrot, meanwhile, is ordered to watch his young master under the guise of serving as his banker, his bodyguard and especially his secretary. (He's equipped with a magical new invention called "carbon paper.") And so these two incompatible men are yoked together and sent off on a crowded, stinking ship for 37 days.
In their alternating, wildly conflicting chapters, Olivier and Parrot at first loathe each other. The finicky, asthmatic, hyperallergic, leech-addicted aristocrat can't believe he's trapped in these quarters with this "appalling English servant," who he fears might kill him while he sleeps -- all of which Olivier describes with total obliviousness in the letters he dictates to Parrot. For his part, Parrot seethes under his breath at "Lord Migraine" and fantasizes about stuffing Olivier's mouth with dirt. "The trouble with the general class of de Garmonts," he explains, "is that they cannot imagine the life of anyone outside the circle of their arse."
The irony here, of course, is that as they tour the world's greatest experiment in equality, Parrot and Olivier conduct a little class war in miniature. Olivier celebrates liberty but fears that he's headed right back into the "nightmare of democracy" that torched France. Parrot chafes at the humiliations of servitude but worries he'll have nothing to do in a future without servants.
Carey makes no attempt to re-create the full scope of "Democracy in America," although he arrives at some of the same memorable locations and trenchant themes. What's forgotten today is that the original purpose of Tocqueville's tour was to study America's penitentiary system; a trip to the Quaker prison that drove inmates insane is especially chilling in Carey's retelling. Even before they land, though, Olivier, like Tocqueville, knows he wants to write a far broader survey of "the mercurial world of the Americans . . . the most interesting creatures he had ever seen." And so we follow this mismatched pair for nine months as they charge around the country, from New York to Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn., and "the nether regions of America."
The nervous thrill of being critiqued by an outsider has lost none of its charge, and that's at the heart of the fun these pages provide. Olivier finds Americans charming and invigorating, but unbearably bad conversationalists, constantly boasting, desperate for praise and obsessed with money. Our ham-centered meals, our ham-handed manners and our hammy singing all come in for ribbing. There are darker criticisms, too. "They had got their hands on a mighty continent from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth," Olivier says in a typically close approximation of Tocqueville. "The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture."
The novel's real pleasure, though, is watching the development of this "most impossible of friendships" as these two men come to a grudging respect for each other. "I had grown very fond of him," Olivier finally realizes. "Parrot could have no other name than Friend." Parrot, too, begins to appreciate his prissy French boss and even pity the young man for his fear of a world rushing to dismantle the aristocracy, saying, "A fellow must admire both his courage and his grace."
But readers should be forewarned: "Parrot & Olivier" starts poorly, particularly for a novel by Peter Carey, who usually sells his work hard in the opening chapters. We don't even reach America for well over 100 pages, and while the section on Parrot's childhood in England as a printer's devil contains the book's most inflammable scenes, Olivier's early, whiny section in France is tedious. Although Parrot's voice resonates with all the raw, visceral poetry of Carey's best protagonists, in general this is not the propulsive novelist we know. The story wanders into subplots of inconsistent interest, including a long one involving John James Audubon. Meanwhile, Olivier's tour of America is hijacked by his romance with an American woman who would shock his mother but bore mine. There are engaging, funny scenes throughout this picaresque tale, but the travelogue grows rickety and stalls too often.
We've waited a long time for Carey to write about his adopted home, and considering how we've behaved during the last 20 years, it's not surprising that he ends with Olivier's most ominous predictions about a crass, artless society with "barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science." But he's still writing like a visitor, and we're still waiting for his great American novel.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.