Did you hear the one about Alexis de Tocqueville?
Probably not. The French historian is associated with many things — his classic two-volume book Democracy in America, for starters — but comedy is not generally one of them. Genius, however, can find the humor in almost anything, and in Parrot and Olivier in America, Australian-born author Peter Carey manages to craft a funny, unlikely and slightly bizarre comic novel around the life of the influential political thinker.
Carey's novel follows Olivier de Garmont, a very thinly disguised version of Tocqueville, and his initially unwilling traveling companion "Parrot" Larrit from France to a still-young United States. Olivier is an aristocrat; his family came close to being killed in the French Revolution, and his parents, sensing more political trouble ahead, are anxious to get him as far away from France as possible. Telling him they need him to research American prison reform, they ship Olivier to the States with Parrot, a gruff Englishman they've convinced to accompany, and spy on, their son. The two take an instant dislike to each other — Parrot unaffectionately refers to Olivier as "Lord Migraine," and Olivier calls his new acquaintance "dreadful" and a "retching varlet." But they soon bond, sort of, over the difficulties and adjustments that come with their new lives in America. Parrot mostly takes the changes in stride, but Olivier struggles, at one point complaining that Americans "are the most turbulent, unpeaceful, least-contented people, far worse than Italians and Greeks."
Stories about two mismatched people who hate each other at first but eventually become friends got old about 500 cop buddy movies ago, but Carey's novel is smart, charming and original enough to transcend that formula. It helps that Parrot and Olivier are believable, (mostly) likable characters. Carey wisely uses the first quarter of the book to detail the respective backgrounds of the duo; by the time they meet each other, the reader knows them both well. And although a culture-clash story between a fussy aristocrat and a tough, working-class journeyman lends itself to some obvious humor, Carey finds comedy in unexpected places. (One early scene in which Parrot considers sabotaging a letter to Olivier's prim countess mother is particularly hilarious, vulgar and smart.)
Parrot and Olivier in America isn't entirely comic. Scenes of the two with their respective love interests are realistic and poignant, and Carey, who has lived in the United States for 20 years, writes about America with a deeply felt but unsentimental sense of affection. But like Charles Dickens, whose influence is evident in this novel, Carey alternates between the light and the serious with an assured narrative smoothness. The novel is charming, witty and — it's probably safe to say — the funniest book ever written about Alexis de Tocqueville.