America is a nation of turbulent pork eaters, obsessed with money and trade: So opines Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, one of two narrators in Peter Carey’s comic novel, “Parrot and Olivier in America.”
The French snob and hypochondriac is based loosely on Alexis de Tocqueville, who arrived in the U.S. in 1831 and spent nine months crisscrossing the land before writing his seminal “Democracy in America.”
Whereas Tocqueville’s traveling companion was a fellow aristocrat, Olivier must berth with a classic Carey creation: a gnarled, salty-tongued Englishman, John Larrit, otherwise known as Parrot thanks to his uncanny talent for mimicry.
Though technically Olivier’s servant, Parrot is almost twice his age and infinitely more wise about the world; his first impressions of “Lord Migraine” are hardly flattering. Olivier, in turn, regards his uppity servant with appalled fascination, complaining to maman in shipboard letters that Parrot himself takes on dictation.
Their relationship develops into what Hollywood would call a “bromance,” yet this agile and almost too facile novel aspires to be more than just the tale of an odd couple. When their boat docks in New York, a vivid, often hilarious clash of civilizations ensues, enriched by some favorite themes from the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
The protagonists’ early years could not have been more different. Olivier was raised in a chateau outside Paris, where the guillotine cast a shadow across an otherwise idyllic childhood. He’s 26 when the specter of revolution -- this time against Charles X in 1830 -- looms again and his parents decide to ship him to safety on the pretext of penning a treatise on the U.S. penal system.
Parrot, for his part, was an orphan taken under the wing of the Marquis de Tilbot, a one-armed French spy up to no good in England. By the time we meet him, Parrot has been an illustrator, architect and explorer. He has lived in New Zealand and has lost a wife and child.
“It is a wonder how many lives a man can hold within his skin,” he says.
He has finally found peace in Paris with a voluptuous painter named Mathilde, when the marquis, smitten with Olivier’s mother, summons him to keep an eye on the young nobleman. Mathilde, the marquis insists, will prosper across the ocean.
“In America there is no one who can paint a horse,” he says.
Arriving in Manhattan, they find only swine scampering up Broadway; 16th Street is a rutted track. An abundance of zingy enterprise awaits nonetheless.
Carey captures the excitement of a society that is, as Olivier notes, “in the midst of such excitable self-invention that its best library had the heady quality of a drinking club.” Though he doesn’t give a fig about studying prisons, the Frenchman is irresistibly drawn to this strange society, and his ridicule gradually turns to admiration.
Boozing, bawdiness and scheming feature in the picaresque adventures that follow, landing the pair at fancy dinners, in brawls and, briefly, in jail. Olivier falls in love, and Parrot, in solving a riddle from his fractured childhood, hits upon a winning business plan.
A teeming cast of extras features the likes of two top-hatted brothers. No older than 20, they’re en route to Georgia, where they’ve purchased $1,000 worth of land. They made the money by using pigeons to transmit London Stock Exchange prices to Philadelphia.
Carey, an Australian residing in New York, riffs on the arithmetic of buying property in Manhattan. He even lets Mathilde get the better of a banker who made a killing on foreclosures.
Exuberant prose conveys the newness of America: Carriage wheels “macerated the fresh green grass” growing between cobbles; a laughing man’s face “moved like a shaking sort of bog.” As usual with Carey, echoes of Dickens resound.
Thematically, this is an aptly restless novel, touching on forgery, exile and loyalty before settling on the question of whether art can flourish in a democracy. Olivier, like Tocqueville, fears not. Parrot, who becomes the publisher of a folio of prints of American birds, disagrees.
Carey shares Parrot’s gift for ventriloquism, and his backlist channels everyone from outlaws to admen. Yet in this latest, it’s almost as if he’s mimicking himself. Olivier is too much of a nincompoop to truly care about, and Parrot, on the cusp of his 50s, is mellowing into contentment. For all its madcap energy and playful accomplishments, the novel lacks the dark shadows that make the best comedies truly memorable.
“Parrot and Olivier in America” is from Faber in the U.K. and Knopf in the U.S., where it will be published on April 20 (380 pages, 18.99 pounds, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)