When poet, musician, and diarist Jim Carroll died in September 2009, he was putting the finishing touches on a potent work of fiction. The Petting Zoo tells the story of Billy Wolfram, an enigmatic 38-year-old artist who has become a hot star in the late 1980s New York art scene. As the novel opens, Billy, after viewing a show of Velazquez paintings, is so humbled and awed by their spiritual power that he suffers an emotional breakdown and withdraws to his Chelsea loft. In seclusion, Billy searches for the divine spark in his own work and life.
Carroll's novel moves back and forth in time to present emblematic moments from Billy's life (his Irish Catholic upbringing, his teenage escapades, his evolution as an artist and meteoric rise to fame) and sharply etched portraits of the characters who mattered most to him, including his childhood friend Denny MacAbee, now a famous rock musician; his mentor, the unforgettable art dealer Max Bernbaum; and one extraordinary black bird. Marked by Carroll's sharp wit, hallucinatory imagery, and street-smart style, The Petting Zoo is a frank, haunting examination of one artist's personal and professional struggles.
"A heartfelt portrait of a New York original by a New York original." (Publishers Weekly)
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Needs an editor!
Deserves to be read
First things first. Scott Brick does his usual wonderful job reading. He even sounds a little like the real Jim Carroll, which is a double edge sword. It’s good hearing the words as Jim might have said them, but I find myself too often comparing Billy, the lead character, to Jim Carroll. I sort of imagine a lot of this novel is a thinly veiled autobiography and I think that’s a little unfair of me because it’s a novel. I just can’t help it particularly with the voice so like Jim’s.
Apparently Jim Carroll had a cardiac event at his desk while writing this beast and died. I call it a beast because the other reviewer is correct that it is quite fat and begs for a good shaving that I think it might have gotten had Jim Carroll lived long enough to complete it.
On the other hand, it has the feel of a novel that he never would have finished, and that’s kind of the problem. There is a linear thread through the novel, but the digressions are so far afield and, frankly, irrelevant (at least for me) that it does get to be a bit of a bear.
But SOOOO worth it. This novel may not be an autobiography, but it stands as a great rumination about the creative process and its impact on artists’ life that I think any dedicated artist can relate. Those are the parts I really appreciated. And I didn’t mind some of the digressions about Billy’s youth that actually felt more like their own novellas because they just kind of went on and on sometimes. In particular as Billy wrestles with his sanity there is a raven from Noah’s arc and quite frankly that is the crucible of this novel. I’m not religious. I’m certainly not Catholic. I don’t get it. Catholic guilt as a concept is an old punchline to a joke I’m tired of hearing. I don’t mean that as a judgement against Catholics or the religion. Just that I’m not interested and the whole Scorsese New York kid being really impressed with crucified Jesus symbolism....I mean, you know? haha. The symbolism of the petting zoo itself....I guess the more symbolic aspects of the work left me a little cold and reminded me of stuff I tried to write in high school. Magical talking animals while on a phantasmagoric journeys in gritty settings. That’s not a huge portion of the story. I’m just saying. It felt like the kind of thing a lot of novices try when they’re just learning to write, like when they’re exorcising their most obvious and least interesting ideas.
i’m not even sure Carroll meant that to be a big part of the novel or if the editors after his death sort of stuck it in there. It’s a shame that it takes up so much space because the real aspect that makes this novel special is its portrayal of an artists career and personal identity crisis (that may not be the best way of saying it but it’s close enough). The novel is strongest when keeping to the gist of that subject.
The forward of the novel says a lot of bits of this novel over the years while writing (again it has the feel of something Carroll got lost down the rabbit hole chasing, no pun) he’d read at his public appearances. It’s pretty easy to spot which sections those are because they have the feel of parts that could and should have been edited out of the novel and released as separate misc materials. Or at least treated less preciously. Because there is a GREAT novel in here that isn’t quite realized. But it’s in there and worth digging into and finding.
- Bradley P. Valentine