Citizen Reviews: Parott and Olivier in America

“Citizen Reviews,” our occasional series of customer book reviews, continues with the indefatigable Ben Paulson’s thoughts on the latest novel from Peter Carey. It’s available today.

Parrot and Olivier in America

There are two things that I should be honest about from the beginning. The first is that I don’t know anything about Alexis de Tocqueville. I mean, I’ve heard of him. I’ve read a quotation here and a paragraph there. I know he wrote about America, about the United States of America, and I know he had various opinions about American democracy. But as to the aim and quality of these opinions, I think it would be fair to categorize my knowledge as near total ignorance. My second confession is that before picking up Parrot and Olivier in America, I had never heard of Peter Carey, a fault clearly my own.

Despite all of my ignorance, I was happy to discover that Peter Carey’s new book Parrot and Olivier in America is a fascinating read. In the interest of clarity, I should say that this is a novel. Olivier, an aristocrat trying to escape the backlash of the French Revolution by escaping to the New World, is a fictionalized reimagining of De Tocqueville, and he writes his way around the United States joined by his somewhat less than faithful servant, Parrot. Carey uses these two characters as the framework for this picaresque story, cobbling together a narrative from their personal papers, letters and journal entries. Through this juxtaposition of Olivier and Parrot, Carey brings depth to the writing, allowing the narrative to alternate between the flowery prose of a youthful French aristocrat and the sly, pragmatic language of his older British servant. As a reader, you will revel in the linguistic dexterity of this novel, as well as the satisfying texture of Carey’s sentences. Although the entire novel is aimed at exploring the young America and its potential, it is through the democratic language itself that Carey shines. This, I think, is the greatest success of the novel–that Carey’s explorations of American identity are not thin mechanizations draped over political philosophy. They are researched, well composed and adorned with luxurious language; language that sprawls from high brow aristocrats to low servants, from eloquent pretense to jarring cynicism, from library desk to barstool.

Parrot and Olivier in America is an interesting work because Peter Carey reinvents and employs a historical figure as the template for an entertaining and thoughtful book that explores American democracy at its roots. It’s a great novel because Carey is such a strong and versatile writer. If you don’t believe me, read one of his sentences.

Ben Paulson lives in St. Paul, where he obsesses about books, zombies and breakfasts.