By Peter Carey
Alfred A. Knopf. 381 pp. $26.95
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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
The year is 1830, and Andrew Jackson is the president of the still very young United States. A young French aristocrat has arrived to assess and report upon the American penal system. While touring the country and its prisons, however, he finds himself so captivated by both the institutions and the character of this new nation that he dedicates himself to capturing its essence for posterity.
Sound familiar? If you are a disciple of American history, it should; it describes the experience of Alexis de Tocqueville, who came to these shores 180 years ago to write On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, though he is much better known for having eventually written the two volumes of Democracy in America, which survive not only as the most discerning of the contemporary appraisals of youthful America but also as the most eerily prescient.
Tocqueville's America - particularly its struggle with the rather contradictory tenets of liberty and equality - is still very much ours.
In Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey, an Australian who has lived in the United States for 20 years, takes Tocqueville's story and reimagines it as Olivier de Garmont's.
Like Tocqueville, Garmont finds himself in an untenable position in the political chaos of France - he's distrusted by both the liberals and the monarchists - so, for his own safety, he is dispatched to the United States. Much to his displeasure, a democratically minded Englishman of low birth, John "Parrot" Larrit, is sent along as his servant and amanuensis by his mother, who sees America as safer for her son than France, just as long as he manages not to get ensnared romantically by an American woman.
In alternating chapters, Carey allows each titular character to tell his own tale - one hardscrabble, one privileged - before and after their lives entwine. Together, their voices bring to vibrant life the early decades of the 19th century in three nations - England, France, and the United States - as well as the conditions of such places as prisons, transatlantic ships, printeries, and the American homes of those who might welcome a visiting French nobleman. And it is their distinctive voices, above all else, that capture our attention.
Nine years ago, in True History of the Kelly Gang (one of his two novels to be awarded the Booker Prize), Carey channeled the coarse, illiterate tongue of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly to stirring effect. Here, Carey transports us into the mind of, on the one hand, a well-schooled sophisticate with ambivalences aplenty, and on the other, an autodidactic printer's devil turned master engraver with ambitions galore. The disparity created is frequently hilarious and always absorbing.
The resulting creation is a bifurcated, picaresque adventure of the first order, complete with tempting damsels, nefarious forgers, arsonists, and a mysterious one-armed man, the Marquis de Tilbot, who serves as the odd link between Olivier's rarefied world and Parrot's ignoble one.
Throughout, as we watch the relationship between these two characters evolve from one grounded in resentment to one grounded in something resembling friendship, we watch Garmont's opinion of both democracy and America evolve, as well. Grudgingly aware at the onset of his visit that the inevitable future of France lies in the simultaneously troubling and exciting present era of the United States, he gradually comes to respect at least aspects of the American character, despite its tendency to encourage money-grubbing over all other pursuits.
To what extent, however, is his newfound admiration tied inextricably to his intensifying affection for the beautiful Miss Amelia Godefroy? Will he marry her?
Meanwhile, what about Parrot? Will the man likely doomed to penury in Europe reinvent himself in this new world where anyone can, in the rather revolted words of Olivier, "claim a site for his château, whether he be a night soil man or a portraitist?"
A desire to discover answers to questions such as these are partly what compel us to keep turning the pages of Parrot & Olivier in America, but it is not the sole explanation.
Instead, what primarily compels us is Peter Carey's masterful manipulation of our readerly senses as he transports us to an America that is, like Tocqueville's, both thrillingly foreign and strangely familiar.