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Parrot and Olivier in America

A French aristocrat and his British servant travel to America to study its penal system in this unlikely but delightful early 19th-century buddy comedy.

By Yvonne Zipp / May 12, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America By Peter Carey Alfred A. Knopf 400 pp., $26.95

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Alexis de Tocqueville doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a buddy comedy. American high school students probably wouldn’t single out the author of “Democracy in America” as an especially humorous historical figure. (Teddy Roosevelt is easy to imagine in a road movie. Ben Franklin could totally have starred in a picaresque. Millard Fillmore is just funny to say.)

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But there is his fictional alter ego, a Gallic Felix Unger to his British servant (and spy) John Larrit’s Oscar Madison in Peter Carey’s energetically intelligent new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America.(Although the pampered, asthmatic, peevish Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur makes Felix look like Rocky Balboa.)

Two-time Booker Prize-winner Carey (“The True History of the Kelly Gang”) has called Olivier an “improvisation” on de Tocqueville, and history buffs should have a great deal of fun with his extended riff. Quotes are embedded throughout the novel (there’s even a website, for those who’d like a complete listing), and Olivier is shanghaied to this waste-howling wilderness to study the prison system, as did de Tocqueville. But “Parrot and Olivier in America” is having too much fun to be hampered by facts or be reduced to a history lesson. (I’m not entirely sure what lessons readers are meant to come away with, and frankly, I prefer it that way.)

Call it Parrot and Olivier’s Refined Journey. Except that Parrot isn’t really all that refined, as Olivier points out numerous times. Parrot, for his part, calls his employer “Lord Migraine.” Needless to say, hijinks will ensue and these two crazy kids will end up the best of friends.

Olivier, pre-America, is a genteel drip, haunted by a French Revolution of which he has no memory and beleaguered by an “ultra-royalist” Maman.

John “Parrot” Larrit is one of the book’s chief pleasures. The novel rouses from the aristocratic ennui of its first chapter as soon as Parrot begins recalling his childhood spent among “that better-educated class – I mean printers. There is nothing like them. Having spent all their day with words and proofs, they are monstrously well read and disputatious beasts, always....”

He and his dad stumble into the employ of a black-market printer and forger, and Parrot begins a shaky apprenticeship crawling up the chimney to a priest hole and the engraver hidden inside. It’s terrific reading and recalls my favorite novel by Carey, “Jack Maggs,” in which he handily renovated “Great Expectations” from the viewpoint of the criminal young Pip meets in the marshes.

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