Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Strange Case of Jim Carroll

Jim Carroll has been dead for more than a year. I hadn’t intended to write about him. What changed my mind was reading his posthumous novel, The Petting Zoo, and then looking up some of the reviews the book received. They were mixed at best, but as I went through them, what struck me was how the majority of reviewers appeared to be reading through multiple layers of preconception. There was some disappointment this wasn’t a hipster screed, a longer version of Forced Entries or “The People Who Died.” Publishers Weekly criticized the book on stylistic grounds (“clever and profound sentences jostle awkwardly with lumbering, bathos-soaked platitudes.”) It occurred to me that you could say exactly the same thing about much of Dickens and you would be right. Few novels consist of a steady stream of perfectly formed sentences. Richard Hell wrote a stylish but strangely academic review in The New York Times Book Review in which he suggested that the novel lacked form. This of course is one of those things a reviewer can say that sounds impressive, as long as no one asks, “what do you mean, exactly?” In this case, if the reviewer meant that the plot is lacking in structure or inevitability, he is wrong.

The other problem is that some reviewers have read The Petting Zoo as yet another installment in a Jim Carroll autobiography. It isn’t. Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker described the novel as Jim Carroll without the sex, drugs, or rock and roll, and he found this disappointing. My view is that it is Jim Carroll without the bullshit, which is considerably more interesting than Jim Carroll the cult figure or Jim Carroll the heroin addict.

The Petting Zoo is the story of Billy Wolfram, a painter who suffers an attack of nerves at the opening of a Velasquez retrospective at the Met. It is 1989 or thereabouts, Central Park still a bit rundown, the Zoo closed for renovations. Wolfram has what used to be called a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized for several days. When he emerges, he is unable to paint, unwilling to leave his loft, and is assailed by a multitude of memories, none pleasant. He also has an enigmatic visitor, a talking raven, who may or may not be an hallucination.

The reader either buys into this or doesn’t. A novel shouldn’t attempt to interest everyone—to do so is not simply to pander, but necessitates a dilution and diminishing of intent. In the case of The Petting Zoo, I bought into the premise.

This is a novel about the difficulty of creating art, and of balancing the demands of art and of life. It is largely a novel about failure. It is not a young man’s book. Carroll may have been 40 when he started it, but he was close to 60 when he delivered the manuscript to his publisher in 2008. Whatever else, this is a novel in which the author stares death—his own as well as that of his main character—in the face. This will not appeal to every reader, but it ultimately makes for an emotionally wrenching book.

To put it mildly, Jim Carroll was a problematic individual. As it happens, I went to the same school he did—I was a couple of years younger. When I later read the selections from The Basketball Diaries that were published in The Paris Review in 1970, I knew it was most certainly fiction—satire yes, but fiction. I wonder how many kids have read the book without wondering why we never read about Carroll’s parents or, given the title, why we never have a decent description of a down-to-the-wire basketball game. And, more to the point, the originals for Carroll’s satirical treatment (I’m thinking of a seriously eccentric and unhinged teaching staff) were far stranger and far more interesting than he or any of us realized at the time.

What I remember is listening to Carroll regale his friends in the basement snack bar with tales of having hung out all night with Allen Ginsberg (this circa 1966 from a lanky kid wearing a blue school blazer, his tie askew). And I remember seeing him striding down the basketball court with an air of inevitability, a sort of Larry Bird avant la lettre. As a point guard, he had the uncanny ability to pick apart the opposition, making the right split-second choice on whether to pass the ball, shoot, or charge the basket.

Later I remember him showing up with a delectable girl who wore a very short corduroy mini-skirt and was rumored to be a soap opera actress. There was also the story that he missed a large portion of the basketball season in his senior year due to a stint on Rikers Island. This is mentioned in The Basketball Diaries but not covered in detail.

Years later, when I asked a couple of friends of mine who were on the poetry scene in the 1970s about Carroll, they dismissed him as someone who was always nodding out from heroin. Someone I implicitly trust is convinced Carroll robbed his apartment, stealing a number of first editions. The title Forced Entries for his second set of diaries wasn’t just a trope, it seems. Not something to be proud of.

As for his writing, the poetry is uneven but worth reading, though I don’t expect the poets I know to be enormously impressed. The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries will continue to attract the most readers, but they are his least serious work. The Petting Zoo is the real thing. After all, we don’t all have the nerve to write our own death.

No doubt, someone will write a biography of Jim Carroll. Let’s hope they do their research, talk to people who really knew him, manage to extricate the truth from the myth, fabrications, and contradictions. The greatest mystery of all is how this self-described street kid became interested in writing in the first place.

For anyone interested in a personal but realistic portrayal of Jim Carroll by someone who knew him in high school and throughout his life, I recommend R.H. Cato’s memoir, “Calm Under Fire,” which is appearing on the Catholicboy website,

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Who Rejected These Novels?

As friends, acquaintances, various bartenders, and my wife all know, I am obsessed with the idea of literary fiction. Not with deciding whether a given novel meets some predetermined set of criteria for admission into the literary pantheon, but with the distinction between novels that are written expressly to fill a marketing niche and those that are written from some deeper place. Most published work falls somewhere between these two extremes. The market-driven novel, the sort of novel that excites agents, editors, and sales reps, is not something I am interested in reading.

Nor do I usually keep track of literary prizes. Nevertheless, I was taken up short when a horse player I know informed me that this year’s National Book Award for fiction had gone to a virtually unknown author whose book about a down-and-out racetrack in West Virginia was published by a small press. Now, as a racing fan and occasional bettor, I enjoy reading about that self-enclosed world, anachronistic and hard-bitten as it is. But this was not what immediately caught my interest. I fully intend to read Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule. I have not had a chance to do so yet.

What intrigues me is that both the 2010 National Book Award and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction have gone to novels from small presses that no one—including several of the judges—had ever heard of. Something rather revealing is going on here.

Earlier in the year the Pulitzer went to Tinkers. This visionary novel by Paul Harding is published by the Bellevue Press, most recently listed as publishing exactly two fiction titles a year:

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.

Any editor who read this passage and didn’t think this novel was at least worth considering for publication is really in the wrong business. Either they are simply incompetent, incapable of recognizing the real thing when it is in front of them, or else they simply have no interest in literary fiction. How many editors at major publishers turned down Tinkers? How many turned down Lord of Misrule?

I would like to believe that at least one or two editorial assistants or lower-level editors fought for these manuscripts and were shot down by the people above them (“Who is the audience for this novel?”), but I have my doubts.

The major book publishers cannot have it both ways. They cannot dedicate themselves to the maximalization of unit sales and still claim a role as the gatekeepers of literary culture. At this stage of the game, book publishing and literature are mutually exclusive terms.

It’s worth remembering that publishers, regardless of what they might say or even believe, don’t actually write novels. They sell them.

Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for fiction, is published by McPherson & Company.

Tinkers, by Paul Harding, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is published by Bellevue Literary Press.