The Petting Zoo
By Jim Carroll
Jim Carroll’s writings—most famously The Basketball Diaries, but also its more assured sequel Forced Entries, and several volumes of tender, electric poems—had a freshness and candor that drew ardent fans. When Carroll died in September 2009 at the age of 60, those fans found some consolation in the news that he’d come pretty close to finishing his long-anticipated first novel, and that it would be published posthumously.
That novel, The Petting Zoo, centers on 38-year-old art star Billy Wolfram, who is in the thick of a baffling professional and personal crisis. When we first meet Billy, he’s fleeing a swanky party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, undone by some potent canvases by Velázquez.” [T]he fact that this is what I do made it impossible to take in the experience without foolishly comparing my style to the master’s, and—with a colossal understatement—further magnifying my shortcomings,” he tells a doctor at the psychiatric hospital where he’s taken immediately after the episode. For Billy, making art is deadly serious business, and it’s excruciating when he finds he suddenly can’t make anything at all.
After two nights in the hospital, Billy retreats into a self-prescribed “reclusion” in his Chelsea loft, where he dreams, looks back on his childhood and his early career, and wallows in the torment of not being able to paint. He also communes with a very talkative and persistent raven. Claiming wisdom born of immortality, the bird taunts the artist and presses him to confront his past. Billy’s predicament, Carroll slowly and tediously reveals, stems from his spiritual uncertainty—and his repressed sexuality.
It’s impossible not to compare Billy’s basic biography to his author’s: Both artists are native New Yorkers who were raised Catholic, found success in their chosen mediums at a young age and wrestled with their renown. Carroll embodied a specific kind of New York myth, one he perpetuates through Billy, who “knew all the possibilities of his life were intertwined with this city.” But the lucidity and energy that fuels Carroll’s earlier writing is missing here, resulting in a story and a protagonist that feel strangely neutered and incomplete.
Billy may be a mess, but he’s also a cipher. There’s no real urgency to his ponderous, long-winded musings on the meaning and difficulty of art. Other characters—notably Billy’s assistant, Marta, and his best friend Denny, a rock musician—feel like lifeless cutouts, and the dialogue throughout is painfully stilted. Carroll seems to be holding his readers at arm’s length.
That’s surprising, since his earlier writings were characterized by a rawness that could leave you feeling almost uncomfortably close to him. As the final work of someone who isn’t around to explain it or surpass it with his next effort, the book’s failings also become tragic. It’s hard to know just how much of its unpolished feeling has to do with it being truly unfinished, and some devotees will surely find something sweetly naked and redemptive in the fact that we have it at all. That’s a tempting way to read The Petting Zoo, but the novel’s weighty symbolism isn’t enough to transform it into a work of art that can stand on its own.