I actually tried reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America before starting Carey’s novel (a fictionalized version of de Tocqueville’s journey through America in the 1930s), but de Tocqueville’s writing is positively soporific, something only a historian with insomnia could love. However, Carey has made me want to go back and give DiA another try. So I will. Someday.
For now, I’m reeling with a form of HL Mencken’s bibliobibulian intoxication. I hope I’m not so drunk that I see and hear nothing of the amazing world around me, but I do love Carey’s writing, and his explorations, through his characters, of democracy and art and the “tyranny of the majority” echo still in my mind.
Parrot is John Larrit, aka Parroquet, a working-class printer, illustrator, servant and ex-pat from Britain. Olivier is Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, an aristocrat whose father was guillotined in the French Revolution. They find themselves thrown together on a mission to the US in the 1830s, where Olivier is to study the American prison system and Parrot is to make sure he stays out of trouble. Each needs the other, although it’s clear from the beginning that Parrot could survive alone but Olivier could not. He can’t even pack his own luggage, for heaven’s sake! These two alternate as narrators, each carrying the story a bit further, with little overlap. The two voices are so different, in vocabulary and syntax, in attitude and affect, each disdaining and distrusting the other, that you think they’ll never get along. Yet they eventually become friends.
Like de Tocqueville, Olivier attacks majority rule, especially if the majority is a mass of uneducated men with low tastes and a desire solely for more money (could any but an aristocrat be so snobbish?). He has no hope for art in such a country, nor for its political future. The most damning statement comes in a fervent, almost Biblical, tirade at the end:
… you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals…. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare.
At another point, Olivier warns that “un fou” will eventually be elected president. Parrot suspects that Olivier suffers from aftershocks of the French Terror — he fears the rabble once again setting up guillotines to massacre entire classes of people because they know too much (oh goodie, it’s time again to purge the intelligentsia). Parrot is more optimistic: his own life is now settled in NYC, with a wife, home, business — everything that Olivier doesn’t have. Is this the essential difference between optimists and pessimists, that the former have a future and the latter don’t? Whatever the case, it’s difficult to read this book, written during the waning years of the Bush Presidency, and not wonder to what extent de Tocqueville’s predictions have come true.
And then, there’s Carey’s writing: so stark and abrupt and surprising. Some lines stopped me dead in my reading. For instance, at one point Parrot says of himself, “It is a wonder how many lives a man can hold within his skin.” This from a man who was torn from his father (and then saw the father carrying his own coffin to his execution), from his wife and child in Australia, from his mistress in France and nearly again in America, from position after position. “I have been a cork in the ocean,” he says. Always afloat, but in no control of his direction or destination.
I’ll end with this: nearly half the book is set in NYC, in the 1830s still mostly unsettled above 14th Street. Carey must have had fun researching this section, with its scenes of pigs stampeding, bar fights, and fires. One character’s comfortable house lies just south of Harlem Heights overlooking the Hudson; a banker’s East Side estate has a panoramic view of the city. If it weren’t for the pigs, I could easily live there.
If you want to have even more fun, explore the Welikia Project map and see what NYC was like 200 years BEFORE Parrot & Olivier got there.