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, http://www.catholicboy.com/RHCato.php