Olivier—an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville—is joined by Parrot as he sets sail for the New World, sparking an unlikely friendship and an exploration of the adventure of American democracy.
Parrot & Olivier in America is a delicious, sprockety contraption, a comic historical picaresque that takes as its creative origin Tocqueville and Beaumont’s 1831 journey … Carey’s story is in what eighteenth-century novelists called the ‘Cervantick’ tradition, which means that this Quixote and Panza must first be at loggerheads, then at ease, and finally in love with each other, and that the master must finally need the servant’s help. In the course of this transformation, the two men have many American adventures, some of them loyal to the narrative of Tocqueville and Beaumont’s journey...but Carey’s departures from the Tocqueville biography are as interesting as his loyalties. Olivier is prissier and more snobbish than Tocqueville was. Though he warms to the American experiment—he, too, is moved by the Fourth of July event—the warmth is intermittent, banked with superiority. Carey makes much of Olivier’s myopia, and it seems obvious enough that America, and thus the future, belongs to Parrot, not to Olivier.
Parrot and Olivier in America is still a Peter Carey novel, which means that it’s amusing and wise and graceful to a degree that we almost don’t deserve … The debate between Olivier and Parrot is insoluble, but then fiction isn’t in the business of offering solutions; its mission is to coax us into feeling the breadth and depth of the question as it’s asked by human beings every day of their lives. Can Olivier (absurd yet endearing) survive in America, and can Parrot (embittered yet softening) thrive anywhere else? The trick of a great novel like this one lies in convincing you that you can’t bear to part with either one.
That Parrot and Olivier in America doesn’t simply fall apart is the result of Carey’s having seen that the very incompatibility of the two stories was what was interesting about them. The challenge of the novel became to create an artistic whole out of such unlike materials, a challenge which Carey meets by making the disparity between John Larrit and Olivier de Garmont the subject of his book. At the simplest level, Parrot and Olivier in America is about two men of different background, social status, character, temperament and experience, who, finding themselves flung together by circumstance, at first dislike each other intensely, but come in time to find a measure of mutual respect, friendship, even love. But the novel’s interest in the immiscibility of Parrot and Olivier extends beyond character to structure and style. They take it in turns to tell the story and with quite distinct voices.