It’s a tempting, if somewhat hazardous, pursuit to try to pull back the authorial curtain to see if you can divine the actual novelist standing in the flesh of one of his characters. But that temptation was never stronger than in The Petting Zoo, the final book by Jim Carroll, who died in 2009.
If you don’t recall Carroll from his poetry collections (including Living at the Movies and Fear of Dreaming), or his '80s-era punk rock albums such as Catholic Boy and Dry Dreams, you’re almost certain to remember Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the writer in the movie adaptation of his groundbreaking memoir, The Basketball Diaries. This book, his only novel, has been a work-in-progress for the better part of two decades, as Carroll often recited excerpts from it at poetry readings going back to the early '90s.
Bouncing aimlessly between the poles of a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD, the story’s protagonist, painter Billy Wolfram, came to the notice of critics at a nearly age, but he’s reached a crisis of confidence. While attending an opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wolfram is thrown into a dissociative episode after seeing a Velázquez painting, and gets tossed into the loony bin for a brief stay. Seems that the Velázquez has called into question everything he thought he knew about art, and the painter finds himself in a state of paralysis . . . not a happy circumstance when one has a major show—with major expectations—in the offing.
As the clock ticks down to zero hour, Wolfram retraces his history, trying to regain his mojo and get back into the zone he had found so effortlessly throughout is career. He’s aided in his quest by a talking raven, who appears (much as in Poe’s famous poem) unbidden, and seemingly placed by the hand of God both to mock him in his current state and to spur him on to greater insight.
The parallels between Wolfram and Carroll are unmistakable, almost to the point of being unsettling: the Catholic upbringing; the occasionally surreal trips down New York City’s mean streets; the connection with rock and roll; the unsparing self-criticism that pervades his thinking. Carroll had never been anything less than brutally honest in his art-as-confessional-booth persona, both in real life and in this novel, made all the more poignant by the fact that he passed away while applying the final brush strokes to its literary canvas. So we’ll never hear Carroll’s thoughts about how much of himself he poured into Wolfram, or whether he considered the novel’s painter an alter-ego.
But when the final chapter is written—and this one appears to be it—Carroll can rest assured that his art will continue to inspire, and provoke, readers for generations to come.
Thane Tierney lives in Los Angeles and collects contemporary art when he’s not writing.