A storming stateside story

Canny yarnspinner: Peter Carey.

Canny yarnspinner: Peter Carey.

 

FICTION: Parrot and Olivier in AmericaBy Peter Carey Faber, 452pp. £18

AS A TWO-TIME Booker winner and author of recent classics such as True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda, the Australian author Peter Carey has credentials that are beyond question.

Mind you, literary reputations are tricky things, and even commercial and critical heavyweights on occasion turn in flabby, meandering and underedited works. It was only recently that this reader discovered that word count can be a factor in the size of a writer’s advance. Therein could lie a problem with so much modern Lidderary Fiction. Could it be that it’s cut to suit the booksellers’ and marketeers’ optimum-sales cloth – 350 to 500 pages – and if the extra wordage buffs up the author’s coffers, so much the better?

Not all great fiction is Moby Dick-sized. Consider Orwell’s major works. Toni Morrison’s epic Belovedweighed in at 275-odd pages. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Ryehas 220, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son160, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby144, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5142.

As we pull on our metaphorical wellies and plod through the bog-suckage of yet another novel at least 50,000 words longer than its story requires, it tends to bring out the inner drill sergeant: send ’em all back down the short-story mines to relearn the art of compression and see if that puts hair on their chests.

At first glance Parrot and Olivier in America, a 452-page historical novel and Carey’s 14th book, should set the alarm bells ringing (and the title, synopsis and cover design do it no favours).

The tale of a French aristo who flees the revolution, accompanied by an older and more streetwise servant named Parrot, to write a treatise on the American penal system? It all smells a bit musty. Visions of a middle-aged writer, youthful hunger spent, clad in cardie and slippers, happily puffing on his pipe and pottering about the well-hoed rows of his bookshelves, seeking inspiration from the historical tomes (in this case Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) that have supplanted the sturm und drangof real experience.

Praise the Lord, there our prognosis falls apart. Parrot and Olivieris a brilliantly written (as in viscerally descriptive rather than windy or florid) ripsnorter of a yarn that rings all the right bells (character, language, story, dialogue).

The book utilises a contrapuntal structure, alternating the main protagonists’ first-person accounts, baton-handed, with minimal overlaps. The reader will probably end up favouring the sarcastic, profane Parrot over the spoiled and sickly mummy’s boy Olivier, but the latter’s testimonials are so well drawn and rammed with event that there’s no question of skippage.

Despite subplot nods to the vulgarity of the US capitalist rat race and rapacious hedge-fund economancers, Carey doesn’t so much reanimate history by back-projecting modern-day concerns on to the past as make it come alive in lurid living colour. Consider this description of Olivier’s childhood return to revolution-torn Paris: “Gustave the blacksmith dismounted and, having fired his musket at the sky, shouted instructions so the coachman might ease the carriage around a bloated horse whose shiny green bowels rose like an awful luminous bubble from the chiaroscuro night.”

What should rightly be transitional sections – such as the one where the young Parrot falls under the care of his kindly but cunning French mentor and master, a one-armed warrior known simply as Monsieur – are rendered as set pieces through juicy evocations of the rabbit-infested riverlands and tors of Dartmoor.

The climax of Parrot’s first testimony, where a garret-bound artist-forger named Watkins emerges from a burning building like a flaming wraith, will stay with me all year: “A fiery angel had appeared on the roof, its hair ablaze and streaming upward, fire right down its spine. It ran along the ridge and flew into the air, smashing into an old oak through whose ancient branches it crashed noisily before passing out of sight.”

Carey is a canny yarnspinner, feeding backstory into the action with the skill of a fisherman. He possesses the singular voodoo that manages to fuse ornately descriptive prose with barrelling parallel narratives that are stitched with human intrigue (the suave Olivier’s attempt to make a cuckold of his servant; the squalid horror of Parrot’s internment in the Tombs prison in old New York; the near gothic account of his passage on a convict ship bound for Australia; a stunning, life-in-one-paragraph summing-up of his tenure at Port Jackson).

There is, mind you, a loss of impetus in the novel’s midsection. The account of Olivier’s entrance to American society and his courting of a Connecticut belle is not nearly as compelling. (That old saw about the journey being more important than the destination comes to mind.)

But there’s also the soft satisfaction of a thaw between the two main characters, and, in its final act, Parrot and Olivierin America reveals itself to be a sneaky little fable about the tenacity of the hustling artist, and how the old roles of master and servant remake themselves in the new light of democracy.


Peter Murphy is a novelist and journalist. His first book, John the Revelator, is published by Faber