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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.

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The fallout from a fire at the forger’s places young Larrit at the mercy of the shady, one-armed Marquis de Tilbot (who also happens to be a “passionate friend” of Olivier’s Mama). Decades later (French politics being somewhat precarious even in 1830), when Olivier has to be shipped off to the New World for his own safety, the marquis sends Parrot along to protect Olivier (and spy on him). To sweeten the deal, he also sends along Parrot’s French wife, a gifted painter named Mathilde, and her mother.

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On the journey over, the two men don’t exactly discover each other’s finer qualities – in fact, it’s a miracle Parrot doesn’t heave his employer over the side of the ship. (He does, however, arrange some rather sneaky surprises concerning Olivier’s finances.)

But once in New York, Olivier gradually bucks up, falling for one of the local girls. His mincing commentary on Andrew Jackson’s brash young country is shrewdly funny, whether penned by de Tocqueville or Carey. “All this malodorous égalité depressed me awfully,” he sniffed, on being forced to share a carriage ride with not only Parrot, but his mother-in-law. From a pig stampede in Manhattan to a Fourth of July parade upstate, he has plenty to discuss – although Parrot gets a far more thorough tour of New York’s Tombs prison than does his master.

Here’s Olivier on American cuisine: “That night I dined as the Americans dined, that is, I had a vast amount of ham. There was no wine at dinner and no one seemed to think there should be,” he writes with the profound horror of a gourmet. “Delicacy prevents me from listing the dinners, the peculiar menus, the names of the ladies who lived only to marry and, when married, thought only of their husbands,” he adds after a few weeks in New York, proposing a treatise “On the Things Americans Put into Their Stomachs.” “This gastronomic aspect of democracy has been quite overlooked in France.”

His aristocratic sensibilities are also nonplussed by being offered a guided tour of a banker’s home. “This, it appears, is the American custom, to escort one’s visitors from room to room like an auctioneer. Even the meanest object will have some story, and the grandest ones a price.”

But Olivier dials back the snobbery the more he becomes smitten with his cello-playing onion heiress, even becoming affronted by a countryman who slights his adopted country. “I did an excellent job of disguising my feelings. Sometimes I think it is the sole talent of the aristocracy.”

Carey, meanwhile, uses Parrot’s extended family to muse about everything from predatory lending and insurance fraud to blighted artistic ability. Mathilde evokes Marianne, the feminine revolutionary ideal. A minor character plays like a scarred version of John James Audubon or maybe Alexander Wilson. The Australian author even works in side-trips to Rio and Botany Bay. The novel is crammed so full, it bristles like a hedgehog with all of Carey’s spiky ideas. Not all are carried to completion (the marquis’s motivations remain opaque, for example), but there’s enough to snag your imagination on, and to spare.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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