four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
By: 
Peter Carey
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0

A-Parrot and Olivier in America.epsPeter Carey, a native Australian, is a two-time Booker Prize–winning author. He has published ten novels and is best known for Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Jack Maggs (1998), and True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). Also Reviewed Wrong About Japan ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2005), Theft ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006), and His Illegal Self ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2008).

The Story: Nearly two centuries have passed since the publication of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville's venerable work on early American political science. In this latest effort, Carey fictionalizes the life of the 19th-century political thinker in the form of French nobleman Olivier de Garmont. Intelligent but arrogant (and a bit of a fop), young Olivier sails to America to study the country's penal system. His secretary, John Larrit, nicknamed Parrot, a middle-aged Englishman with a hard-luck past, accompanies him. The two men couldn't be more different, or more disdainful of each other, but as they witness firsthand the wonders of a fledgling democratic nation, they discover that they have more in common than they thought.
Knopf. 400 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307592620

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Not since de Tocqueville has democracy been portrayed as the extraordinary, exhilarating gift it is. ... Columbus might have discovered America, but with this new novel, Carey gives us the thrill of discovering his adopted home--our adopted home--all over again." Ellen Kanner

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[B]racing and often hilarious. ... This is an exuberant, entertaining, incisive novel, full of attitude and incident, about ‘the great lava flow of democracy.'" Robert Cremins

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] work that one hates to see come to an end. ... The observations and experiences of the two men are as rewarding as they are thought-provoking." Robin Vidimos

Salon.com 4 of 5 Stars
"[A]musing and wise and graceful. ... 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." Laura Miller

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In Parrot and Mattie, Carey has portrayed the classical immigrant experience, from suffering and humiliation in an old Europe to triumph in America; and as reverse, the irrelevance of European privilege over here. There are a great many more permutations, twists, and characters in the novel; so many, indeed, as to display the occasional weakness of Carey's strengths: a virtuosity overload and a piling-on of incident." Richard Eder

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Parrot and Olivier in America grabs its subject and marches down Main Street playing full out, provoking a reader's delighted applause and--as is often the case with this exuberant novelist--a small measure of exasperation. ... Like most of Carey's inventive, maximalist entertainments, Parrot and Olivier is replete with expressed feeling, if too wittily contrived for actual passion." Thomas Mallon

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The relationship between Parrot and Olivier is a substantial element of the story, and often a very funny one. ... The narrative proceeds in leaps and bounds, sometimes with a hop backwards, omitting connections, giving an impression above all, perhaps, of confusion--confusion of event and motive, incomprehension, a vast drama without structure." Ursula K. Le Guin

Critical Summary

By most accounts, Parrot and Olivier in America is trademark Carey--adventurous, chaotic, and wonderfully original--and another possible, and certainly worthy, candidate for a Booker, noted the Miami Herald. It is also hilarious: most critics cited the interaction between the two narrators as a favorite, even though the presentation of their very different perspectives (Carey tells their stories in alternating voices) irritated two of them. And although more than one reviewer commented on the book's overabundance of characters, themes, and twists, that didn't stop them from enjoying themselves. As the critic from the Guardian noted, "It's a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?"