No matter what Peter Carey writes, there’s always a playful extravagance in his work, coupled with pleasurable, fast paced plot and linguistic gorgeousness. As with Illywacker, Parrot and Olivier in America has a little bit of chaos in the structure, mimicking the multiple shades of truth and reliability. The nature of "truth" is a recurring theme for Carey, and although the setting of Parrot and Olivier in America is as grand as any that Carey has used, it is the focus on human frailty that makes the story intimate and endearing.
There are two narrative voices taking alternative chapters. Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is the first narrator. As the lengthy name suggests, he’s a wealthy French aristocrat, born at the end of the French Revolution. It’s not an ideal time to be an aristocrat, and his own self-image is shaped by his parent’s sufferings and the events that happen outside his cloistered walls. He is educated in the law before being sent to safety in America to write about the American prison system. Olivier is modeled loosely on Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the the classic textbook on the US democratic system De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America), but is an entirely fictional character, enriched through his connection to the other narrator Parrot, aka John Larrit, a down to earth Englishman from Devonshire.
Parrot worked under his father’s tutelage as a printer, at a point in history which wasn't ideal for printers, especially forgers. When Parrot’s father and everyone else in his house is arrested and taken away in chains, he escapes into the arms of a large French nobleman, the Marquis de Tilbot, camped in unlikely squalor on Dartmoor. Carey shows his narrative mastery as Parrot’s remembers his first meeting with the man who becomes his conduit to Olivier:
"For Christ’s sake—the secret forgers were all bursting from the roof, up through the tiles, alive and dying all at once, such screams. The Parrot Larrit was a frightened boy, running, encouraged by his da and the other printers chained together. Up the hill I went, a musket ball whizzing past me like a hornet on the chase, and into the very patch of woods that had been spared the barley axe, jumping across the smoking body of a man who I, in my terror, decided was asleep. (113)"
Ultimately, it is the Marquis who sends Parrot on a mission to look after the younger Olivier during his time in America. The delicate balance between revulsion and friendship in Parrot and Olivier’s relationship drives the rest of the story forward, as we get alternative perspectives from each of the two protagonists. Both Parrot and Olivier's developing maturity through love, jealousy, hatred, and fear, is richly presented in a series of Dickensian scenes that are the funnier because of the contrast between the two different perspectives: