Sunday, February 21, 2010
Parrot And Olivier Like To Be In America
You have heard me mention my friend Simon who lives in London, correct? Well periodically Simon sends me books. The boxes he sends are always wonderful. He is a terrific judge of what I will enjoy reading, I love seeing the covers that are used outside of the U.S. and who doesn't like to get a package in the mail? In the current box, among other treasures, was a copy of Peter Carey's new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America. Lucky me. I was not even aware that Carey had a new book coming out. Shocking! It's due out over here in April but nana-nana-nana-na-na I have it now. Not to rub it in or anything like that.
Carey has twice won the award that most often co-insides with my own perfect taste, the Man Booker. I'm sure we both remember my rants on that prize so I won't go there again. Anyway, Carey has won the Booker for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) and he was on the short list for Illywhacker (1984). Impressive. There have been many other awards and nominations along the way for Carey but for now I'm going to ignore those. Just know they are numerous.
So? Parrot and Olivier in America? Despite my deep love for the collected works of Peter Carey I had one concern prior to beginning this novel. I knew from reading the book jacket that this book was inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and 'in America' is right there in the title. So... That has got to mean that the novel will be examining the U.S. and frankly I was not interested in reading a new and improved Democracy In America bashing novel. I get enough of that in my newspapers, in line at the Post Office and my brother-in-law to get me through my day. As it turned out my worries were for naught. I should have known. This is Peter Carey! Parrot and Olivier is not a retelling of Democracy In America so much as it's the you cannot turn away banjo playing cousin.
The narrative alternates between Olivier a priggish, indulged son of French nobles who were traumatized by the terrors of the Revolution and the very downtrodden and mysterious Parrot. When Papa and Mama discovery little Olivier's involvement with Napoleon supporters they are scandalized. They send him away to America for his own protection. Not trusting Olivier to be able to take care of himself and stay out of trouble in the wilderness they hire John Larrit (a.k.a. Parrot because of his ability to mimic)) to be their spy and Olivier's servant, secretary and protector. Olivier and Parrot take an instant hatred to each other. Olivier's blue blood wants nothing to do with the bastard son of an engraver, a survivor of the Australian penal system. Parrot's artistic soul and outlaw ways dismiss Olivier as an inbred fop.
Once in America Olivier and Parrot's points of view are even wider apart. Olivier's snobbish disdain for the New World only slackens when he falls in love with a Connecticut woman. Otherwise all of America is big rude, dirty, money grubbing wasteland to him. Parrot's opinions are a bit more varied, but this isn't a paradise for him either. As the novel progresses and each of our narrators have more adventures and we see America through two very different sets of eyes and experiences the novel gets more fun. The numerous walk ons add to the deceptively haphazard events. Our guides are far too self centered to see what lies beyond their current situation. Parrot and Olivier's relationship does change over the course of the novel. They gradually and grudgingly go from servant and master to...ummmm... friends.
Peter Carey is an amazing writer. A writer who takes chances with each new novel and gets better with each novel. In Olivier and Parrot in America his glorious characters ramble through a confused, vaudevillian America. Carey keeps them oblivious to much but their situations and attitudes illuminate the ideals and failures of the young democracy. Carey's language is rich and powerful. A delectable treat! Parrot and Olivier in America is joy ride through through the preciousness of history.