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,


  1. I was Jim's agent and I watched this book bloom in his head. And I watched him struggle with it on the page for many years. When that Raven appeared, all else disappeared the voice was pure poetry with a Bronx accent. He was thinking about Billy Wolfram and making notes for this book from the time he was twenty. He did write his death. And then he died. Thank you for this assessment of the coverage and more importantly of the book.

  2. I have to laugh about the missing first editions. I am looking forward to reading the book.

  3. Well said. I am halfway through the book and find myself now befuddled by the various poor (albeit kind) reviews I've read. This book to me seems a delicately composed tale of a life, done so through the arduous task of metaphysical excavation. What has made his previous writings interesting was not what drugs were ingested, or who the narrator hung out with, but the poetic sincerity, and craft with which they were conveyed. I recall when I gave my father "Forced Entries" to read he stated that he was in his fifties and had little interest or compassion for some junkie kid. Upon finishing it he told me, "Man, he really makes you care." This, I believe, is accomplished through the writing.

  4. Reading this book has been a tremendously bittersweet thrill. I've been dreading the end as though his last written words will be a sad final echo; and I will settle for re-reading and re-reading his written works, which I love, and reinterpreting them in new ways as I move through life.
    As far as the reviews, I haven't read any and don't care to. The craft, the honesty, the sincerity, and the strong moral center of Billy Wolfram's soul and character are truly beautiful in the way they have been woven together through the poems in the pages. I have to agree with the blogger here in the sense that this may be written in liberation of a few stereotypes which have spanned his earlier works.

  5. I found myself sad for no apparent reason whilst reading The Petting Zoo. As I write that, I immediately know why I was is because I will have to be satisfied with everything Jim has done up to this point and there will not be anything new. So many people I have encountered seem to have some sort of preconceived notion of Jim. For myself, I saw him as a person of immense talent whose departure from this world leaves a hole in not just my own heart, but the world itself. That said, however, I do also take great pleasure in regularly re-reading his past published pieces, absorbing the thoughts and words of those who also appreciate and miss him, and feel blessed that I was able to see him speak live to an audience on one occasion. That singular event gives me solace sometimes. The Petting Zoo may not live up to some critic's expectations...but then neither did Jim. Nor would I think he would ever have cared to.

  6. "As for his writing, the poetry is uneven but worth reading, though I don't expect the poets that I know to be enormously impressed." - Jim Carroll laid down his art with the kind of purity that all great creation should contain. Thank god he wouldn't be praised by "the poets you know" because they're probably uptight and boring men (and/or women!) in button down sweaters and loafers who cling to the old rules of what poetry is supposed to be. Poetry, as well as any art form should be only one thing: straight from the heart and soul of the person who is behind it. Maybe not everyone could understand where he was coming from, but to completely write him off as a junkie writer who didn't contribute anything is flat out wrong. I liked Jim Carroll because of the way he thought about things, I liked him for his mind and how he wrote about certain experiences from behind his eyes. When I read Jim's books as a teenager it made me understand there was something to strive for with my own art. There is a standard to hit and you must go for that everytime. Jim did exactly that with his writing and no critic can ever take that away from him.

  7. Jim Carroll was a legendary NY figure who so woefully and soulfully "Wanted the AngeL" that it breaks my bleeding heart to hear his poetic sing song. May his sweet unique whining strange accent and universal Whitmanesque message be delivered to the lost forevermore...


  8. Thank you for this. The Petting Zoo really moved me and I was confused by many people's reviews and expectations as well. It seems like they forget sometimes that more than anything, Jim was just a man with a heart and a soul.

  9. This is very insightful--particularly the observation that the finished novel was the product of a mature man. Jim, at 60, infuses the perspective of someone who participated in the art scene as a young man and seen how some of the inherent trade-offs played out. Thank you!

  10. Personally, I found Jim Carroll's "Petting Zoo" to be moving and a significant contribution to serious literature. The negative reviews are hardly surprising. Jim Carroll, as a rock artist was subject to vitriolic, almost irrational reviews(again, I happened to like his stuff). As far as the book having 'form' is concerned, think of all the great books in American literature that are not quite satisfactory in form - "Moby Dick", "Huckleberry Finn", etc. Carroll's writing here has a long tradition. If one might insist upon comparison, one is reminded ate times of James Leo Herlihy, Edmund Schiddel, Warren Miller(of "Waiting for the General" fame)and Hugh Selby, all filtered through what one might call a Blakean sensibility. However, in the end, it is all undeniably the product of the mind of Jim Carroll. This book paints, as it were, both a hilarious portrait of the New York art scene and the creatures who lurk therein, and a touching portrait of psychological fragility. We are all lucky Jim lived long enough to produce this book. Let us not forget that many a great book has received negative reviews in the beginning. Perhaps Time will provide a better perspective. The talking crow was a great narrative touch. Jim was a fascinating poet, rock artist, and novelist. People will come back and discover this....Greg Cameron, Surrey, B.C., Canada

  11. Wayne Woods said:

    Someone did write a biography on Jim. An Italian writer named F.T.Sandman. It's called "Jim Carroll - Punk Ribelle, Poeta".
    I, and other members of the band, were interviewed for it. Unfortunately, I can't read Italian.

    Personally, I loved The Petting Zoo.

    Wayne Woods, California