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.)
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.
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.
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.