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[Book review]

Jim Carroll’s The Petting Zoo

(Viking; $25.95)

A Poet’s Look Back

book review by Jim Cherry

“O great creator of being/grant us one more hour to/perform our art/& perfect our lives” An American Prayer, Jim Morrison

The Petting Zoo is a poet’s look back, not only at his life, but the art, celebrity, and the ideas that guided him. The Petting Zoo was Jim Carroll’s first and last novel, he died shortly before putting the finishing edits on the book. For those fans of Carroll’s or books with a poetic bent The Petting Zoo is a must read.

Most people are aware of Jim Carroll through The Basketball Diaries either the 1978 book or the 1995 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Carroll also fronted The Jim Carroll Band which released one album Catholic Boy. But Carroll was foremost a poet, and had his poems published and lauded while still in his teens (Living at the Movies). I’ve been a fan of Carroll’s work since The Jim Carroll Band, and have read most of his poetry. When I ran across The Petting Zoo I was a little hesitant because sometimes poets don’t come across well when they move to the novel. The esoteric ideas that work well in poems just don’t translate that well to fiction. But I over came that objection and let curiosity and my liking of Carroll’s earlier work to sway me, and I bought it, and I was glad I did.

The Petting Zoo is an artists look backwards at his life. Carroll’s character surrogate is Billy Wolfram a New York painter who at mid-life is suffering a crisis of just about every order from insecurity in his work, to women problems, and even the lack of spirituality in his work. During an opening, Billy is driven into the New York night by these newly manifested demons where he meets a crow that talks to him. Billy is then taken to a mental hospital for observation. Upon his release Billy reassess every area of his life with the occasional guiding insight from the crow, a crow that is older and has a much more complicated relationship with humanity than it at first seems. The Petting Zoo isn’t The Basketball Diaries the middle aged years. If anything, it reminds me more of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, it has the same feel. Maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising, New York as a locale is a highlight of both books, as well the artists looking back at their careers, Smith non-fictionally at the early, optimistic years she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe, and Carroll at the whole career of an artist and aspects of a career that Smith in Just Kids would have considered their wildest dreams.

Writers have cast themselves or their fictional alter egos as artists before, Hemingway and Vonnegut to name a couple. It seems a good simile for a writer especially a poet to identify with. Poets have to use words thickly like the painter’s colors, words thick with meaning, and Carroll doesn’t waste any words, each seems carefully chosen. I usually read fast but I found myself slowing down to enjoy the lyricism of Carroll’s writing, enjoying the sensation of Carroll’s words soaking in like a drug. There’s almost a tactile feel to Carroll’s imagery. He remembers sensations and translates that sense memory very ably to the reader. I rarely highlight passages in books or make annotations, but I found myself doing both throughout the book, finding passages either strikingly insightful or poetic. Such as the story of why a baby cries upon being born is mesmerizing and a beautiful perspective. This is a book I didn’t want to finish, not because it was bad but because I wanted to savor, to maximize the ecstatic state the writing put me in.

I quoted Jim Morrison at the top of this review because that is how Jim Carroll lived his life, as an artist. He reportedly died at his desk writing until the end trying to get that “one more hour” to perform his art. You can look at The Petting Zoo as an attempt to perfect his life. I remember from his poems he wrote of wanting to be “pure” and the thought is the same as Morrison’s to “perfect our lives” with The Petting Zoo being an attempt to find that purity or perfection, as if it were a literary ablution.

I wonder if Carroll was aware of his imminent mortality, a lot of The Petting Zoo seems valedictory. If anyone knows Carroll’s earlier work they know he embraced and struggled with his Catholic upbringing, especially in light of the life he led. A lot of The Petting Zoo questions whether we’re blind to our own problems that outsiders can easily see, faith and religion is one of the possible solutions he considered and continued to struggle with, the remnants of that early Catholic Boy faith remained with him longer than most and until the end.

I know a lot of people won’t “get” this book, there are a few shortcomings like towards the end some of the dialogue all of the sudden comes at you in big chunks, maybe because Carroll died before he had a chance to polish it. There are discussions of aesthetics, I know that usually doesn’t inspire the fiction reader towards a book but Carroll crafted this novel so well, the fluidity and lyricism of the writing is compelling. I hope people give this book a try. We’ve all played the game where we’re asked if we had only one book, one movie, one anything on a deserted island what would that be? I think The Petting Zoo would be the book I choose.

Below: Jim Carroll in New York, NY (2005). Photo by Stephen Spera.

[Jim Cherry is the author of the novels The Last Stage and Becoming Angel. His website is jymsbooks.com.]

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