The odd couple

Peter Carey sketches a send-up of ‘Democracy in America’ with a French aristocrat and his entrepreneurial servant

By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2010

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A generation ago there was hardly a columnist on the weightier newspapers who failed to quote “Democracy in America” to dress up a generalization about our culture. Wisdom by association, you might call it: Chateau de Tocqueville instead of the merely domestic plonk of political journalism.

Such prestigious branding is rarer nowadays. Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1830s observations of America’s new society remain largely acute, even prescient; changing times, though, bring changing icons.

Not content with icon-change, Peter Carey, the prize-winning Australian novelist, kicks this one partly to bits. Carey is as various, often as brilliant, and always as irreverent as they come; irreverence being Australia’s national genius, payback for England’s saddling her with a heritage of exported convicts to keep her own tidy. Here he names his Tocqueville character Olivier and makes him something of a fool.

Drag out the Olympian author from behind his Olympian book is Carey’s scheme; mischievous but with a serious underlay. For “Democracy in America,’’ substitute a fictional Tocqueville in America and macerate him in the juggernaut of contradictions his book will set out so urbanely.

Carey couples his lofty Olivier with Parrot, hard-bitten and a man of many sorrows, who accompanies him to America as his prickly servant. They stand for different worlds.

Olivier is a bright but spoiled aristocrat who, despite his family’s difficulties in the French Revolution, retains an immaculate arrogance.

Parrot is working-class English, brought up in a radical background of printers and engravers and undergoing a picaresque life of suffering and displacement, including years in Australia’s penal colony, before ending up in France.

Olivier’s parents get him a commission to study American prison reforms. Parrot is dispatched to keep an eye on Olivier as well as serve him. They tell their converging stories in alternating and very different voices.

Carey adapts his style to each. Olivier relates his younger life with dream-like obliviousness; he is snug in his own cosseting, and his fears swim far beneath the surface. Parrot’s past is all harshness; and Carey writes it jagged and disjointed, sometimes to the point of incoherence. This can be irritating, yet it conveys a violence and pain so acute that it suggests traumatic amnesia, as well as a child’s patchy understanding of what is going on.

From the confusion, moments of high drama emerge: a police raid on the print shop in Devon where Parrot’s beloved father works and counterfeit notes are produced, the father led off to be hanged, Parrot’s own wild flight across the moors in the company of Tilbot, a one-armed French aristocrat and spy with a strange hold on the boy, and Parrot’s consignment to a ship carrying prisoners to Australia.

Olivier and Parrot board their New-York bound ship, along with Parrot’s wife, Mattie, a gifted painter whose rough origins match her husband’s.

While Olivier begins as he will go on, interrogating the American passengers about their country, Mattie paints their portraits, and Parrot broods bitterly about serving his obliviously arrogant master. What will ensue after they land in America is a series of reversals that mirror the revolution of Old World fortunes arriving in the New World.

Most of the American story centers on Olivier. It is Jacksonian times and a brash up-from-bootstraps class that has displaced the earlier patricians. Boundlessly self-confident, the leaders of this group are delighted to instruct their French visitor. With the zeal of a naturalist examining a new species, Olivier talks to everyone. He visits prisons, but his interest ranges far more widely.

As for his feelings, contempt for vulgarity and what he sees as a culture of greed mixes with awe at the sheer vitality of America (an admiration that can give way to panic, as in one excellent scene where nature’s untamed ferocity confronts him in the form of a waterfall). And when he falls in love with a free-spirited American woman, and she accepts him, he is on the point of staying and becoming American himself. But — Carey’s irony is merciless — what she longs for is to be married in France and accepted by the aristocracy.

Olivier’s illusions collapse, and so does he. Broken, he takes refuge with Parrot, who has left his service to set up, along with Mattie, a flourishing business producing fine bird prints (Carey borrows Audubon) that sell lavishly around the world. No longer a servant, Parrot is no longer bitter; gradually the class gulf has given way to an odd mutual affection.

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.

The excess here, along with a certain pat melodrama, may be a kind of compensation.

Historical novels can be tricky and the need to give service to real events is apt to hamper a writer’s unconstrained venturing.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.


Knopf, 383 pp., $26.95