Monday, September 06, 2010

Book Review: "Parrot and Olivier in America"

Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf, 2010) is Peter Carey's fictional re-imagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's journey to America (the result of which was of course his famous Democracy in America). Carey's Tocqueville is recast as the sickly and tetchy Olivier de Garmont, but instead of his fellow aristocrat Gustave de Beaumont for a travelling companion, Garmont is granted John Larrit (aka Parrot), a cantankerous Englishman nearly 50 years old who provides both the comic relief and the narrative foundation of the novel.

Told in alternating chapters narrated by Parrot and Olivier, Carey manages to tease out each character's history (Olivier's as a coddled child of nobles during the aftermath of the French Revolution; Parrot's as a young printer's devil caught up in a forgery scandal and brought under the power of the mysterious Marquis de Tilbot). This early exposition takes up a quite a chunk of the novel - it's not until 100 pages in that our heroes even find themselves on board ship for America (Olivier to tour the prisons of the United States, Parrot assigned by Tilbot to keep a watchful eye on the young man while serving as his secretary). Parrot's story, at least, makes for fascinating reading, and as they set off across the Atlantic it's clear that he's got a major part to play (and some more secrets to share).

Carey handles the shifting perspectives well, and captured the two separate narrative voices expertly. Parrot's frustration(s) at his charge (who he quickly deems "Lord Migraine") are comical and understandable, while Olivier's fumings at his situation and his musings about all things American foreshadow his ultimate interest in a much wider range of cultural topics than how prisoners are treated.

Once the dynamic duo disembark in New York their relationship begins to morph into something very different from its French form, as they begin their travels around America to examine prisons and learn about the grand new experiment, the United States. Various adventures ensue, sometimes including both Olivier and Parrot, sometimes just one of the two - these mostly make for interesting reading, although a strange subplot involving characters from Parrot's early printing days strained credulity a bit.

Carey's writing is rich and lovely: I loved his description of a Philadelphia library and his descriptions of a New England town meeting and a Fourth of July celebration through the eyes of Olivier. I enjoyed his characters (and for their faults, liked each of them), and although I found a few of his tangents a bit disorienting, this is a book that I will recommend without reservation.

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