Parrot And Olivier In America offers up a life of Alexis de Tocqueville (fictionalized, as Olivier de Garmont) and his manservant Parrot (fictitious) as two men equally ill-suited to judge a fledgling democracy. In Peter Carey’s 11th novel, the lauded author of Democracy In America can’t even be bothered to write his own letters, but his snobberies don’t make the trip less expansive or charming.
In Carey’s version, the men arrive in the United States against their will: The sheltered Olivier is sent away by his parents, nobles who hid in the country during the French Revolution and could join neither the royalists nor the émigrés afterward. Fearing their son will stumble into the wrong political meeting, they secure him a commission to write a report on American prisons and bribe his ship captain to get him drunk when he balks on the eve of the voyage. Parrot (once Perroquet), who fled to England with his father, then was orphaned in a print-shop raid, takes an order from his eccentric benefactor to accompany the peer’s son, and manages to finagle passage for his mistress and her mother as well.
The noble fool and the bitter sage will eventually come to depend on each other, which becomes clear their first day ashore, when Olivier vainly tries to do business at a New York bank without the co-signer to his notes. Carey largely resists the buddy-comedy implications of their eventual reconciliation by playing his dual narrators against each other stylistically as well as dispositionally. Olivier never met a flourish he didn’t want to gild, while Parrot thuds and clomps through memories of his years between orphanhood and the care of the man he refers to as “Lord Migraine.”
They’re united only in their contempt for Americans, yet their conviction carries them boldly into a largely indifferent society. Carey excels at capturing the screwball outcomes of such an encounter between worlds without attaching it to fact. As the bringers of gentility humble themselves to their hosts, Carey’s long prologue directing Parrot and Olivier to their first meeting snaps into focus, framing them as fellow survivors of France’s worst years. The voyage they dreaded grants them the freedom to descend to an undignified level of buffoonery, true, but also to an introspection impossible on their native shores.