Parrot and Olivier in America
Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so creatively out-of-the box that the reader isn’t quite sure what he holds in his hands. He puts it down, baffled by its unique perspective, and wonders if the author is a con man of some sort, hoodwinking the reader with every clever, well-crafted chapter.
So it is with Peter Carey’s latest novel, Parrot & Olivier in America. Here the two-time Booker Prize winner shows off his formidable writing skills and his dexterity at misdirection. Every scene is a sly little joke, a eccentric trip into unknown places, so the reader thinks he’s lost but indeed, he is not—in fact, he’s being tugged quite firmly along by invisible leading-strings.
The first of these narrative guides is Olivier, the only son of aristocrats who managed to survive the French Revolution. Olivier is a true “child of the guillotine,” steeped in the pride of his family’s royalist traditions. As an adult, he dances in the dangerous political waters of post-Napoleonic France, mistily hoping for some future monarchial return, yet carrying with him a terrific fright of the maddening mob.
The second narrative guide is Olivier’s soon-to-be traveling companion, Monsieur Perroquet, better known as Parrot. Parrot is an itinerant English printer’s son, caught up at a tender age in the forgery schemes of French emigrants. Forced out of his promising trade, he works as a French aristocrat’s servant, and watches with gimlet eye the thrashing of noble fish in shifting republican waters.
These disparate characters—fierce mutual antagonists—are soon thrust together, as Parrot is given orders to ferry the young Olivier to safety overseas. Soon they are wading knee-deep into the ultimate democratic experiment—America in all her early nineteenth century glory. There, the men witness the pains and power of the majority, the naissance of an artistic culture, and the ebullient hopefulness of the young country. The process changes the feudal nature of their relationship and forges a most unlikely emotional alliance.
It’s a rare and wonderful thing to read an author who so deftly combines the commercial with the literary. Through some purely Carey alchemy, the author pleases with his page-popping characters and quick-trotting plots yet manages to spur the same reader into musing on the nature of art in a largely uneducated world, or contemplating why dedicated democrats still stubbornly worship the so-called well-born. Carey does all this with cunning humor, with a master’s touch in crafting scenes, with prodigious facility with words—and surely with more than a touch of black magic.
Parrot & Olivier swallowed this reader whole. The novel is a quirky, brilliant achievement that should garner the author commercial success as well as a whole slew of literary prizes.