On the Road

The Australian novelist Peter Carey is a Victorian in postmodern clothing. His novels serve up the joys of nineteenth-century fiction: sprawling plots that trade in melodrama and comic anecdotes, baroque characterizations replete with heaving bosoms and leathery-faced criminals, and a style that delights in depictions of urban life. Yet Carey, like Thomas Pynchon, enjoys playfully blurring the boundary between fantasy and fact, rewriting history as fiction and drawing attention to his own artifice. This two-time Booker Prize winner writes like Charles Dickens—and winks at his reader while doing so.

Carey’s newest novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, is a heavily fictionalized retelling of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French historian and political thinker. Unwinding its story from the shadow of the French Revolution, it tells of the unlikely friendship between Olivier de Garmont, an aristocrat based on Tocqueville, and John Larrit, the motherless son of a forger, nicknamed “Parrot” for his uncanny ability to imitate voices and languages. As in his two previous novels, Theft: A Love Story and His Illegal Self, Carey shifts between dueling perspectives, alternating chapters in Olivier’s poetic, at times stuffy voice with chapters in the more muscular style of Parrot. These voices reflect differences in background and upbringing: the sickly Olivier, born into a wealthy family that must flee Paris in the wake of political violence; and the shifty Parrot, living a childhood straight out of Dickens and tramping through the bogs of Devon, ferrying chamber pots to and from Watkins, the master forger hidden in an attic who is working with Parrot’s father to counterfeit French currency.

Carey is drawn toward this kind of shifty, shifting character—con men, tricksters, tellers of tall tales. After the authorities pinch his father for counterfeiting, Parrot is adopted by a mysterious one-armed marquis, and under his tutelage becomes “convict, maid, architect, cartographer, and botanist.” Meanwhile, the Garmont family, concerned for the safety of their aristocratic son in revolutionary France, ships Olivier across the Atlantic to study the American penal system (as Tocqueville did). The marquis, a close friend of the Garmonts, sends Parrot along as Olivier’s secretary, charged with keeping an eye on the young noble. Divided by class and culture, the two snipe at one another. (“The trouble with the general class of de Garmonts,” muses Parrot, “is that they cannot imagine the life of anyone outside the circle of their arse.”) As they travel through America together, though, a mutual affection begins to form. After Parrot takes the blame for a shooting involving Olivier in New York City, and after Olivier humanizes himself by falling for an American girl, one could almost call the two friends. Sound like a buddy movie? I envision Jude Law and Matt Damon.

Parrot and Olivier is a picaresque novel filled with brilliant set pieces. In one, echoing the climatic scene of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, the authorities raid the house where Parrot, his father, and others have been counterfeiting money. The house explodes, sending Watkins, the forger, hurtling through the air and Parrot dodging bullets. Carey manages his multiform plot with brio, guiding the reader skillfully through rapid shifts in time and place. The real pleasure of Parrot and Olivier, though, comes from Carey’s lively prose, which weds high lyricism with low, pungent imagery. Portraying a crowd of men, for instance, he describes their hats as “small black dinghies beached upon their wigless heads.” Carey has a particular gift for physical portraiture. As a fawning sea captain offers him a drink, Olivier notes that the captain possesses “such a veritable twist to his body it was as if he had become a plank of his own ship, caught by opposing currents of servility and greed.” A French sexton, delivering mail to the village, “would amble, long-armed and poke-necked, as if demanding that the peculiar world explain itself.” In Carey’s fictional world, there is no divide between matter and spirit—the body reveals the soul, making secret histories and tortured imaginings visible.

This ambitious novel features a host of characters, a wide array of settings (not just America but revolutionary Paris, Australia, and the marshes of England), and an eclectic mix of languages. Carey inhabits characters by inhabiting voices—he is, like his creation, a true parrot—and it is wonderful to see (and hear) him work through such dizzyingly varied registers. Just as impressive is the ease with which he handles the historical realities of the French Revolution, early American democracy and the American prison system, and the significance of Tocqueville, a figure claimed today by liberals and conservatives alike. Carey doesn’t shy away from analyzing America’s democratic ideals and practices. He captures the optimism of what Tocqueville saw as the land of the future—one that, Olivier proclaims, has “nothing like our schisms, our ancient blood-drenched hatreds”—even as he notes the venal nature of a people “obsessed with trade and money.” Olivier admires American egalitarianism but fears it as well; scarred by the French Revolution, he stands in awe before the vitality of the democratic enterprise, even as he recoils from what he sees as American crassness and the tyranny of the majority.

America stands in this book as a site of freedom—freedom from the past and its horrors, freedom to transform oneself into something new. Carey loves improvisation, and the America depicted in his novel is a land expressly built upon improvisation: a country where Watkins, disfigured by fire, can become a renowned engraver, and Parrot, his former accomplice, can somehow carve out a domestic idyll and a successful business.

In lesser postmodernists, this interest in playful improvisation might lead to a feeling of shallowness. In Peter Carey’s work, this is never a problem. He approaches his creations as Tocqueville approached America: with unflinching realism, with wary skepticism, but also with affection.


Related: Anthony Domestico reviews 'Charles Dickens' by Michael Slater

Published in the 2010-05-07 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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