Jim Carroll’s novel “The Petting Zoo”

Magnum Opus: Jim Carroll’s long-awaited novel The Petting Zoo is released over a year after the author’s death

Originally published in the Northside San Francisco in March 2011

The catastrophe of loss, the loss of a true poet, is so pure that it might for many pass unnoticed. But the universe knows, and no doubt Jim Carroll was drawn from his labors and the prison of his own infirmities to the distances of the greater freedom. —Patti Smith

I’m glad I made a point of hearing Jim Carroll read in person. He died on September 11, 2009 at the age of 60. Carroll in the flesh was a formidable yet friendly presence. Tall, lanky and with an aura of eternal youth, his wide eyes and birdlike features clashed with his raspy voice that croaked like a rusted spring.

Carroll’s poetry and prose served an identical purpose; both had a brilliant conversational immediacy, insight and humor that drew the listener into his world. Born in New York City in 1949, the poet, musician and diarist Jim Carroll was first known as a basketball star when he attended Trinity High School in Manhattan. His descent into drug addiction was well documented in his book The Basketball Diaries, later turned into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the drug-addled teenage Carroll.

Carroll’s first volume of poetry, Living at the Movies was published in 1973. His second diary Forced Entries captured the New York City scene in the early 70’s. I heard Carroll read excerpts from Forced Entries; tangents and anecdotes about Max’s Kansas City, drugs, sex, madness, suicide. Tragic characters living on the fringes of society were brought to life with a sweetness and humor that made the whole scene sound as innocent as a 1950’s family sitcom. That was part of Jim’s gift. We always felt like he was essentially a good guy. Jim was a friend. His expansive storytelling abilities allowed the audience to trust him. We knew he’d bring us back from these dark places unscathed but wiser for the journey.

I also heard him read from The Petting Zoo, the novel that took twenty years of Carroll’s life to write, and the book he’d nearly completed when he was found dead in his New York City apartment. As his only novel, this book is a departure from the poetry, memoirs and remembrances for which he was known. For me, the novel included a rare moment of déjà reading. Thirteen years ago during a snowy night at an Ann Arbor, Michigan poetry reading, I saw Carroll take out a scribbled sheet of wrinkled paper about ” … a guy named Billy”. He went on to read a hilariously disturbed piece involving a young man, Barbara Streisand, the Kennedy assassination and a piece of veal that had the entire room roaring with laughter. Only when I sat down to read The Petting Zoo, which was released late last year, did I realize and remember that this novel was the story of Billy, a painter at the crossroads of transformation.

The Petting Zoo is a new genre but is still crafted with the same loquacious, mystical inventions that remain Carroll’s trademark style. Billy Wolfram, a famous painter who achieved notoriety during the eighties art boom finds himself questioning everything after being moved beyond words at a Velázquez exhibition. What follows is an introspective journey with hints of magic realism in the form of a talking raven who acts as Billy’s Greek chorus, a signpost that informs the reader of the character’s spiritual and psychic whereabouts, something the other people in Billy’s life would give anything to discover. Seeking out autobiographical content is always tempting with Carroll’s writings, but the story is only autobiographical in the sense that it is about an artist’s spiritual expedition into creation. Nevertheless, Billy’s dark explorations of mortality will always cause readers to wonder whether a certain clairvoyance was at work in an author whose time was running out.

Carroll’s publisher along with key people in Jim’s inner circle carefully performed the final edits according to the author’s known wishes, edits needed to release this book in its final form. The result is a novel of rare authenticity and distinction in its voice and message. Fortunately for us, as Patti Smith writes in the introduction, “… his diamond mind never stopped writing.”

Then, like the enigmatic raven, he took that single step and flew away.

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