Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

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“A brass-band burlesque of literature and history. Parrot and Olivier in America grabs its subject and marches down Main Street playing full out, provoking a reader’s delighted applause . . . Sentence for sentence, Carey’s writing remains matchlessly robust.”—Thomas Mallon, New York Times Book Review

Peter Carey named to Booker Prize Short List

From the two-time Booker Prize–winning author comes an irrepressibly funny new novel set in early nineteenth-century America.

Olivier—an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville—is the traumatized child of aristocratic survivors of the French Revolution. Parrot is the motherless son of an itinerant English printer. They are born on different sides of history, but their lives will be connected by an enigmatic one-armed marquis.

When Olivier sets sail for the nascent United States—ostensibly to make a study of the penal system, but more precisely to save his neck from one more revolution—Parrot will be there, too: as spy for the marquis, and as protector, foe, and foil for Olivier.

As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, between their picaresque adventures apart and together—in love and politics, prisons and finance, homelands and brave new lands—a most unlikely friendship begins to take hold. And with their story, Peter Carey explores the experiment of American democracy with dazzling inventiveness and with all the richness and surprise of characterization, imagery, and language that we have come to expect from this superlative writer.

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Peter Carey is the author of ten previous novels and has twice received the Booker Prize. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he has lived in New York City for twenty years.

From our Q&A with the author

What was your starting point for Parrot and Olivier in America?

I might say, “Reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,” but in fact it began before that—years of hearing how Americans quote Tocqueville. If one were to rely on these snippets, one would think that Tocqueville fell head over heels in love with this new Democracy, that he “got” America.

Of course, he was in his twenties and was only here for a very short time. It’s impossible, you would think, that he “got” everything. He was a child of traumatized survivors of the French Revolution. He had good reason to fear the mob and the rule of the majority. You might think he had no chance of getting anything. But to read Democracy in America, the reader will be astonished to see that did indeed “get” America, although in a much more complicated way  than common quotation suggests.

It is eerie, really, to see him fearing the dumbing down of society and the devastating conjunction of capitalism and culture. He is looking at the USA in the 1830s, but he clearly sees the phantoms of Palin and the Bushes.

He also thought it was impossible to create culture in a democracy without a leisured and educated class, and he is obviously wrong and less obviously right. He creates an argument in the modern reader’s mind—indeed, I conceived the novel as a kind of argument.  In creating Parrot, the son of an itinerant printer, I was inventing someone much closer to my own cultural history. Parrot is that exotic impossible thing, the working class artist.

How closely did you go back to reading de Tocqueville work and specifically Democracy in America? And in taking on this figure as inspiration, did you feel any difficulty in moving away from the historical, factual records?

I read a great deal around my subject. In the end this does not matter too much, but people who are interested in this sort of thing can find it on my website. As for Democracy in America, I read it closely in my own magpie way. People who know Tocqueville will find some of his lines woven into Olivier’s narration. When you stumble across anything dismissive or snobbish about America, that bit came from Tocqueville. These are the lines that have been forgotten in Washington and elsewhere. That is not to say there is not a love affair with America (and a particular American). Indeed there is, and it is cerebral and physical and always passionate.

As for the historical record, I wanted to be fastidious in one way and reckless in another. I wanted to signal to those who know the territory that my departures from known history were informed choices. For instance, Tocqueville travelled with Beaumont and wrote a report on prisons with him. My Beaumont figure is called Blacqueville and I had him killed off in Le Havre before the journey started. I think that this is a clear sign that we are dealing with fiction.  I was much more interested in expressing and testing ideas through the conflict and odd friendship with his very independently-minded, completely fictional servant.

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