Two For the Road
Parrot and Olivier in America
by Peter Carey
$26.95 List Price
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