In his introduction to Democracy in America, that epic tale of a young country told by an aristocrat from an old one, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that many of his readers would criticize his work. His account of the New World experiment was "not precisely suited to anybody's taste; in writing it I did not intend to serve or to combat any party; I have tried to see not differently but further than any party; while they are busy with tomorrow, I have wished to consider the whole future." He might as well have been describing the task of the novelist, crawling into the skin of one character after another, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of his creations' ultimate fate.
What would Tocqueville have thought of Parrot and Olivier in America, Peter Carey's latest marvel of a novel, which improvises on Tocqueville's own life? It's a natural enough question; the parlor game—more irresistible than is the case with many historical novels, because the characters seem so particular that it's difficult to imagine them as the paper dolls of research—is to figure out where fact leaves off and imagination begins. Carey has mined the past to write several of his novels, including Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), both of which won the Man Booker Prize, but he appears acutely conscious of his historical plundering in this case. In a note, Carey writes that he read one hundred related works in the three years he spent writing; a bibliography on his website ranges from Hugh Brogan's masterful biography of Tocqueville to Fanny Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans.
The author splits his narration between two obverse characters, whose sharply distinctive narrative registers give generous play to Carey's riotous gift for language. Olivier de Garmont, nobly bred and sickly born, hacks and coughs his way to adulthood under the meddlesome yet distracted supervision of his parents, who barely escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution. At the age of twenty-six, when it appears that his own precious neck may be in danger, his family hustles him onto a boat to investigate America's prison systems. Parrot, considerably older, is an Englishman with artistic talent and a lifetime of rotten luck, who ends up as Olivier's servant, carrying a difficult lover and her soup-stirring mother on board. Their pairing is engineered by a one-armed marquis, who threads through the story without ever entirely explaining himself, just as he remains mysterious to Parrot, whose life he has both saved and stunted. (Sticklers might object that Tocqueville's companion on his American journey in 1831 was in fact a fellow Frenchman and magistrate, Gustave de Beaumont, and not a surly wannabe artist certain to bring the color to a priggish blue-blood's cheeks. But where's the fun in that?)
Olivier makes for a delicious protagonist, horrified at practically everything he beholds on the passage over, particularly the boorish behavior of his "appalling English servant," whose only redeeming feature is his beautiful calligraphy, "with which empty skill he manages to counterfeit both wit and learning." Landing in New York City, Olivier finds "a provincial town in the process of being built or broken" and a slew of Americans "who looked at me at every moment as if to ask, Are you not awestruck by the wonders you behold?" He and Parrot fall into a series of amusing misadventures that inevitably bond them. When Olivier loses his heart to a blond Connecticut beauty, whose charms hasten his conversion from disdain to admiration for the brash égalité of America, Parrot even pinch-hits as cupid: In one hilarious scene, he minces through a demonstration for his skeptical employer of how he might act out a play by Molière to impress the object of his affections. Your typical buddy comedy this is not.
Parrot, not to be outshone by Olivier's piquant dandyism, has a backstory so mottled it strains belief, but credulity is for nitpickers. Motherless already, he is cast alone into the world when his father is apprehended during a raid on a counterfeiting operation. But he's a survivor. This means embracing the marquis as his savior, even after he witnesses the man murder another for reasons that baffle the young boy: "I held his neck and kissed his vile cheek. That's the Parrot for you. I wish he was another way." After a lifetime of subsuming his ambitions to those of others, Parrot senses in America, the land of second chances, an opportunity for redemption.
The richest pleasure of Parrot and Olivier in America is the clever and seamless way that Carey manages to illuminate the themes that preoccupied Tocqueville: the differences between New World and Old, the rule of the mob, the role of Protestantism, Americans' obsession with commerce, even the effect of democracy on the theater. More often than not, when an author creates a hybrid, circumscribed by the facts yet unfaithful to them, we wonder why he didn't just make the whole thing up. That frustration can be all the more acute when the writer embroiders on a well-known figure and then uses his subject's life as mere decoration. But in Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey has skillfully highlighted the intellectual and social concerns of his Tocqueville-tinged Olivier to make them the driving forces of his life—and, eventually, the upending of his character. If the novel concludes at what feels like a beginning, that is where Tocqueville came to rest, too.
Sarah L. Courteau is literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly in Washington, DC.