Tripping with Tocqueville: Two different views of Frenchman's American adventure
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It was no simple thing for Parrot and Olivier to come to America. One assumes it was also no simple thing for Peter Carey to give birth to this masterful, sprawling epic. But oh, the reader is so pleased that the effort succeeded.
An homage to Alexis de Tocqueville, the Dickens-worthy tale follows two men living on opposite sides of the English Channel.
Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleuris, born into wealth and privilege at exactly the wrong place and time -- Paris in the midst of the French Revolution.
John Larrit, nicknamed Parrot for his shock of red hair and skill at mimicry, is more than two decades older, the son of a printer who was killed in a counterfeiting operation. His father's killing has far-reaching consequences as it launches the chain of unlikely circumstances that ultimately bind Parrot's fate with young Olivier's.
The link between the two men is the Marquis de Tilbot, a man so duplicitous, so self-preserving that the reader is left to puzzle his true intent.
Tilbot has many weaknesses, but perhaps the most long-lived is his love for the Comtesse de Garmont, Olivier's mother. Her son is bored and restless, eager to throw off the chains that bind him to past glories of this family, but is constitutionally -- and financially -- unable to do so.
But the young man's dabbling in the philosophy of the rabble-rousers of the day attracts the attention of the French government. His parents, knowing full well how fragile their aristocratic future is in post-revolutionary France, contrive to send him away for a time. The excuse is that Olivier will write a lengthy report on the reportedly superior prison system in America.
And to assist him with this task is the redoubtable Parrot, who will not be Olivier's secretary, but also a spy for the smothering Comtesse.
And away they go, unexpectedly accompanied by Parrot's lover, a portrait painter of wondrous talent, and her mother, a bony, bent woman of prodigious years and fondness for garlic and onions.
The battling foursome encounter several significant creatures on their sea journey to an America beginning to embrace its vast potential, including an enterprising banker and insurance salesman and a theater impresario.
In the months that follow, the fates of these shipboard acquaintances become so knotted together that even a country that embraces democracy over lineage cannot sunder them.
Mr. Carey, an Australian who has lived in New York for 20 years, masterfully captures the essence of America in a way that honors as much as it gently mocks.
Olivier takes an instant dislike to the rocking chair, "the awful monument to democratic restlessness."
"In America, everyone is in a state of agitation: some to gain power, others to grab wealth, and when they cannot move, they rock. They dig canals, they tear along rivers in a rage of machinery, the engines pumping like sawyers in a pit."
The novel alternates chapters between our two heroes, and the reader fancies that they may reflect the two sides of Mr. Carey's soul, relishing his adopted country even as he rolls his eyes over its sometimes appalling absurdities.
"In America, they prefer their elected officials be no smarter than themselves."
A two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize, Mr. Carey should start clearing out a shelf or two, all the better to receive the accolades and awards that "Parrot & Olivier" so justly deserves.
First Published May 23, 2010 12:00 am