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.
Peter Carey’s inventive, zigzagging novel Parrot and Olivier in America is chiefly set in...this America, a place of great physical beauty, eccentrically ambitious people, and social institutions that are both stolid and skimpy … Olivier is a jumpy, snobbish, sickly fellow whom his servant calls Lord Migraine, and his angle on the world makes up only half of Carey’s novel. Well, to be precise, although this precision is not confirmed for us until the very last page, his angle on the world is not the angle it seems. It turns out that Olivier’s English servant, John Larrit alias Parrot, has not only written his own half of the text, like Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House, but has conjured up Olivier as well. His farewell to us and his master, which he calls his ‘Dedication,’ is a tour de force of suggestion and complication.