NEW YORK — The novelist Peter Carey, whose new book, “Parrot and Olivier in America,” came out recently, likes to call himself a Marshian, which is another way of saying he’s from Australia.
Carey, one of only two writers to win the Booker Prize twice (the other is J.M. Coetzee, a South African), grew up about 48 kilometres from Melbourne in the improbably named town of Bacchus Marsh, where his parents owned a car dealership
First working in an ad agency and then writing full time, Carey, now 66, lived Down Under until 1990, when he moved to New York.
He still speaks in a broad Australian accent and is not shy about mentioning that his homeland recently issued a 55-cent postage stamp in his honour, or two postage stamps, really. One shows Carey as he is today, ready to erupt into a smile, which is practically his default expression. The other shows a photograph, selected by Carey himself, from 30 years ago, when he looked a bit — well, Marshian, with thick, nerdy glasses and features that seem a little mismatched.
“I have pictures that are much worse,” he said recently, laughing, in the SoHo apartment where he lives with the book editor Frances Coady.
Until now, all of Carey’s novels have in one way or another been about Australia. Probably the most famous are “Jack Maggs” (1998), which reimagines Dickens’ “Great Expectations” from the point of view of Magwitch, Pip’s benefactor, newly returned from the penal colony down under; and “True History of the Kelly Gang” (2001), which recounts the story of Ned Kelly, the Australian outlaw and folk hero, in Kelly’s own words, vivid, expansive and unpunctuated.
Carey’s new book is his first to be set in America. “Parrot and Olivier” takes place in 1830 and is an “improvisation,” as Carey calls it, on the history of Alexis de Tocqueville, who appears here as the asthmatic, myopic, nosebleed-prone Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont.
Olivier is possibly even more of a snob than Tocqueville was and certainly less gifted, but he too is a Bourbon aristocrat who after the accession of Louis-Philippe finds it convenient to get out of France for a while and accepts a commission to write about the American prison system. He is accompanied not, as Tocqueville was, by an aristocratic compatriot, but by an English printer and engraver, almost twice his age, named John Larrit (also known as Parrot, because of his carrot-coloured hair), who has been hired by Olivier’s family to be his servant and secretly to keep an eye on him.
Like many of Carey’s books, “Parrot and Olivier” is picaresque and depicts a growing friendship between the two men, who begin by loathing and distrusting each other. It’s also a political debate of sorts.
Parrot, a failed artist who eventually becomes a successful entrepreneur, believes unquestioningly in American democracy.
Olivier, though drawn to America and its citizens, has grave misgivings about majority rule and about the future of a people who “preferred their leaders to be as undereducated as they were themselves.”
He got the idea for the book, Carey said, from reading Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” a few years ago.
“I had an impression that he was this French aristocrat who really got America,” he said. “I think that’s a commonly held view. But I found that he was terribly ambivalent. Every single vile thing that’s said about America in my book is taken from his. He had a kind of general snobbishness and a great fear about the kind of culture that’s possible in a country that cares only about money.
“And you find yourself reading all this in two ways. You think, ‘You ridiculous snob.’ And you think: ‘Actually, pal, you’ve got a point. It’s even worse than you thought.'”
Carey laughed and added: “He’s so concerned about the rule of the majority, which is not a very sympathetic position. But then you realize that what he’s really worried about is Sarah Palin.”
Explaining why, after all these years, he finally felt able to write about America, he said: “Tocqueville opened a door I could enter. I saw the present in the past. It was accessible, imaginable.”
Unlike Robert Hughes and Clive James, other celebrated expats, Carey did not leave Australia in a Joycean act of self-invention. He moved here — temporarily, he thought — because the woman he was married to then wanted to live in New York, and he thought, why not? He had already won his first Booker Prize — for “Oscar and Lucinda”(1988) — and was not feeling unrecognized or under-appreciated at home.
Since moving here he has become the executive director of the graduate writing program at Hunter College and has enthusiastically adopted New York, if not the rest of America, which he called “a scary, prickly beast to really embrace.” He added, “I am happy every day to be in this city.”
Carey’s friend, the novelist Patrick McGrath, a transplanted Englishman living in New York, said he believed that Carey was energized by living in “such a vigorously competitive city.”
“This is his home, no question,” McGrath added. “We often discussed how to write about America if you don’t come from here. It’s a tricky thing. But certainly it was always an ambition of his to grapple with this country.”
And yet, though the plot doesn’t strictly require it, the new book sends Parrot on a detour to Australia, then still a penal colony.
“Parrot is an Englishman who could also be an Australian,” Carey explained. “In certain ways he’s much closer to my knowledge of life, my expectations of life, than Olivier is.”
He added: “I may have lived here for 20 years and have very strong feelings about American culture, but I’m also an Australian. It’s something sort of primitive, and in the book I had to go there. That’s the way the current of my heart led me.”
Carey quickly pointed out that the Australia of 2010 was not the Australia he grew up in, but said: “This is a country that began with the most enormous trauma and things like that stick around. History matters. For the people who settled there, it really was like being sent to Mars. They were an outcast lot — not just the prisoners, but the soldiers who guarded them. You were not a very successful soldier if you got sent there.”
He added: “So you grew up with the notion of the convict stain — people really talked about that. And that’s the power of the story of Ned Kelly: It’s really about the possibility of a people who seem to have no possibility.”
He paused to make fun of himself for sounding like a professor and then went on: “A trauma like that leaves enormous amounts of self-hatred, and we carry that degree of damage. It’s not inconceivable that a country like this would be a little unsure of itself culturally. You wouldn’t be nuts to feel insecure.”
On the other hand, the novel he’s working on now has nothing to do with Australia. It’s about an Englishwoman in London in 2011 and an English gentleman visiting Germany in 1861, he explained, and so there’s no reason for it to go to the Southern Hemisphere. Is he sure? He paused for a moment and said, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t write that.”