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When poet, musician, and diarist Jim Carroll died in September 2009, he was putting the finishing touches on a potent work of fiction. The Petting Zoo tells the story of Billy Wolfram, an enigmatic thirty-eight-year-old artist who has become a hot star in the late 1980s New York art scene. As the novel opens, Billy, after viewing a show of Velázquez paintings, is so humbled and awed by their spiritual power that he suffers an emotional breakdown and withdraws to his Chelsea loft. In seclusion, Billy searches for ...
When poet, musician, and diarist Jim Carroll died in September 2009, he was putting the finishing touches on a potent work of fiction. The Petting Zoo tells the story of Billy Wolfram, an enigmatic thirty-eight-year-old artist who has become a hot star in the late 1980s New York art scene. As the novel opens, Billy, after viewing a show of Velázquez paintings, is so humbled and awed by their spiritual power that he suffers an emotional breakdown and withdraws to his Chelsea loft. In seclusion, Billy searches for the divine spark in his own work and life.
Carroll's novel moves back and forth in time to present emblematic moments from Billy's life (his Irish Catholic upbringing, his teenage escapades, his evolution as an artist and meteoric rise to fame) and sharply etched portraits of the characters who mattered most to him, including his childhood friend Denny MacAbee, now a famous rock musician; his mentor, the unforgettable art dealer Max Bernbaum; and one extraordinary black bird. Marked by Carroll's sharp wit, hallucinatory imagery, and street-smart style, The Petting Zoo is a frank, haunting examination of one artist's personal and professional struggles.
Posthumously published, this narrative raises provocative issues concerning art, celebrity, creativity, sexuality and spirituality, while never quite working as a novel.
Before his death at the age of 60, Carroll had earned renown decades ago, as a teenage memoirist (The Basketball Diaries, 1978), a poet and a punk-rocker. The protagonist of his only novel is Billy Wolfram, "the golden boy of the New York—indeed international—art world. Billy was only 38 years old, and his star had risen steadily since his first show at 21." Though Billy is both a prodigy and a Manhattan native like his creator, the painter isn't merely an authorial stand-in. He receives visits from a talking raven who is apparently immortal (it shares memories of Noah and the Ark) and who serves as both oracle and muse. He has also been celibate since his unfortunate attempt at masturbation may have had a causal connection with the Kennedy assassination. The bare-bones plot begins with Billy's anxiety attacks, which land him in a mental ward after he attends the opening of an exhibition that suggests to him how much spirituality his own work lacks. During his recovery as something of a recluse, with a looming deadline for his next show, he takes stock of his life through memories of pivotal passages and through minimal interaction with his assistant, Marta, and his boyhood friend, the rock star Denny MacAbee. Much of the stilted dialogue expands into multi-paragraph soliloquies, as Billy doesn't so much converse as expound. (" 'One thing's for sure, there will be no meeting of minds if our elected officials continue to slash funding for public art—mainly because of their own antiquated tastes and moral codes.' ") The author has a lot to say about art—its creation and consumption, its relationship with sex and spirit—but this isn't the best platform.
The novel doesn't feel unfinished so much as unbalanced.
All the trouble, of course, began with Velázquez. Billy Wolfram was running recklessly down the wide steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Craning his head backward, he saw the huge banner with the old master's self-portrait hanging from the limestone façade. Billy was certain those cocksure eyes were fixed directly on him. Mocking him. The slick leather soles of his new shoes slid beneath him, but he recovered before falling. He sped up, watching the yellow streaks of cabs passing down Fifth Avenue. Then he turned his eyes upward to the lights swinging over the traffic like hanging torsos, frozen on red. He heard snatches of conversations from men poised on the steps, smoking in tuxedos: "So I told her it looked more like a pie chart." "I don't get these old masters…; there's something so Catholic about them…;"
He took the last nine steps three at a time, then sped south on Fifth Avenue until he reached the entrance to Central Park. His legs were straining to outrun the images in his brain and find some equilibrium in speed. A doctor friend once told Billy that he was prone to "racing thoughts." He moved slower now on the path beside the dog run, sweating through the seat of his tuxedo trousers. He was thinking about the sound of traffic out of view, and how alien the body seemed, how senseless and capricious. Nauseous, he started shaking so badly he wanted to collapse into the grass and rest, anything to lose the images of Velázquez, every detail in his paintings, every brushstroke now stuck in loops of racing thoughts.
He wondered what kind of man the old master was. Billy knew little about Velázquez in any biographical sense. Staring up at the trees, he resolved to change that, vowing to thoroughly research the maestro's life by the next day.
Billy Wolfram fixed his eyes directly at the sky, which was filmy and disguised by the lights and melancholy of the city. The cause of his outrageous behavior that night wasn't buried in some biographer's footnotes, but in the paintings themselves. It was their spirituality and haunting arrogance that had attacked Billy. The characters in the paintings still shouted out, and the volume grew until their seventeenth century voices sent him dropping to his knees. As if genuflecting in prayer, he remained in the grass and the sound of peasants, cardinals, and children of the aristocracy continued to taunt him now for the shortcomings in his own work and his frivolous life.
Billy raised himself up, returned to the path, and moved on. He had no idea how much time had passed, but despite the knees of his pants being soaked, he felt calmer. Some of the lampposts gave off light, others had been snuffed out by vandals' stones flung through the opaque casing. It was the type of bare, low light that encouraged danger and disguise, but in his present state of mind, rejuvenated by his rest in the grass, Billy walked south on the pathway without qualms or fear.
Moving through one of those semicircular brick underpasses, the ground filled with puddles and the walls with moss no matter what the weather, Billy recognized that, in his circumstances, there was no better place for him to be. In these shadows, this part of the park had no reference to time or place. He passed a homeless old couple sleeping beneath strips of cardboard. They looked up at him, both toothless, the man with a patchy gray beard. They could have been from any era or country…; the French Revolution, resting after a day among the crowds gathered to watch the guillotine do its work, finding their only entertainment in its simplicity and precision.
He was speeding up, his body finally falling comfortably into place with his mind's delirious, disheveled drive. It's amazing and terrible, he thought, distinguishing the ironies out of control within you, and not being able to do a thing about them. What he needed was something to take his mind in another direction.
There was a fork in the path; Billy recognized that the turn to the left led to the zoo, remembering for no reason that the Latin word for "left" was "sinister." Within minutes, he was on a hill overlooking the zoo.
This was fate, he thought; this was exactly what he needed. Billy had loved zoos all his life. The Central Park Zoo was antiquated. It hadn't expanded its cages for the spacious simulacra of natural habitats that many modern zoos boasted. Nonetheless, there was a unique sensation walking around its minimal confines. It was the counterpoint of all those wild, exotic creatures existing right alongside the aloof residents of obscenely priced buildings on Fifth Avenue. Creatures strutting with such certainty a few short blocks away from the neurotic and trendy. This was what passed for irony in midtown Manhattan. It was all the irony people wanted in their lives, and it was all they could handle.
Halfway down the path leading into the main zoo's north entrance, Billy was confronted by an orange DayGlo sign, surrounded by a chain-link fence: CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS.
Billy circumnavigated the barricaded site by following the grass beside the carriage path leading directly to the petting zoo. He picked up a flyer and read that it was still operating despite the reconstruction of the larger zoo. The fact that it would be closed for the night did not bother him in the least. Billy knew that animals would provide the perfect diversion to redirect his obsessed thoughts, and nothing was going to stop him from that necessity. He stopped for a moment and looked down at what remained of the old zoo. The tall spiked fence that once enclosed the polar bear still stood, and the huge centerpiece, the pool for sea lions, was all drained and dry. It wasn't as deep as he had imagined when he watched the seals circling the gray water and diving down until they were out of view. Now there were just two homeless men, barely visible in the moon shadows.
Though most of the lion house had been leveled, some of the cages were still intact. Billy felt the ghostly presence of cheetahs restlessly pacing. Beyond the brick tier of the monkey house, which remained standing, he could see the petting zoo. He moved down the rocks toward it. He could feel the animal spirits diffusing the dilemma of Velázquez, but not completely. The streetlight from Fifth Avenue played on the red and yellow leaves of the trees, and in them he saw the canvases from the museum. If he stood before a painting long enough, Billy had always thought he could reconstruct every moment of its creation. He could tell which were the starting strokes, the defining cuts of a palette knife, the transcendent afterthoughts in the thickness of pigment. It was as if he were standing in the painter's studio with him. Yet, despite the strange, shocking quality that he had seen in the maestro's canvases tonight, recreated now in the trees, he couldn't pull off that feat…; not with Velázquez. He was blocked. "This is how it should be," he whispered to himself, before stumbling down the hill to the petting zoo.
There was a metal shutter closing off the entrance, secured at the base by a huge padlock. In his current state of mind, this didn't bother Billy. He walked around the side, where his only obstruction to the zoo grounds and the animals was an old black metal fence. Actually, at second glance, it looked rather imposing…; a row of ten-foot-high rods, sharpened at the top. There was an old elm to Billy's left, however, growing right up against the outside of the fence. It might as well have been a stairway leading to a slide into the zoo. Its limbs were low to the ground, extending outward into the zoo, only about ten feet from the pond, where a duck floated alone in the dazed, diffused moonlight.
He climbed the tree with ease, but once he reached a suitable height to scale the fence, it was somewhat trickier finding a branch that would both carry him into the zoo and support his weight. He tested one, and though it began to bend precariously, he realized it would only take one more step before he could lower himself into the zoo. He took it, and the branch snapped beneath him, quickly and loud. Billy lurched forward, miraculously sidestepping the pond and landing on his feet. His tuxedo was barely wrinkled. It was amazing.
Billy surveyed the place, walking toward the glass-encased pavilion at the entrance. The lampposts offered just enough light for him to see clearly, accentuating the atmosphere of the place. The little zoo was a remnant of a bygone architectural age—the Candy Land school, circa Cold War 1950s. It had a theme, an odd mixture of fairy-tale and biblical references, and abounded with details. There were the "Three Little Piggies," with houses of wood, straw, and brick. Of course, the actual pigs themselves lived in a rusting tin A-frame and were hardly little, but gigantic sows, pushing the 300-pound mark. They were also extremely unattractive, their bodies a bloated pink, with a few bristly clumps of thick hair.
There was a small Noah's ark, cantilevered out over the entrance to the pond. The pond was the centerpiece of the petting zoo, normally filled with ducks and geese. Near that was an exhibit of tropical fish housed within a glass window encased in a huge blue whale. The whale looked like something on top of an Eisenhower-era drive-in restaurant with waitresses on roller skates. Most of the fish were dead or dying. The whale's exterior paint was peeling badly, but its schizophrenic eyes still stared above a lunatic white smile.
The petting zoo rattled Billy's painterly instincts. On the day it opened, everything about it had had a postwar flamboyance, the colors lurid, artificial, and bright. Now, from time and the city's exhaust, they had faded like the decorations on a birthday cake that had sat far too long in a bakery window.
There were ponies in their red stable, locked away for the night, along with a recalcitrant llama that was fond of—and accurate at—spitting on onlookers while standing in his cramped, sorry quarters. The tops of the lampposts were shaped like buttercups. There was a black wrought-iron birdcage crowned with a wire sculpture of a robin swallowing a worm. This cage was fairly large but hardly large enough for the two fully grown birds inside, hunched sullenly on their perches.
Billy didn't have to break into Noah's ark, since there was no door on it. He quietly slouched up the gangplank and entered. There were ten small cages. Eight were empty; the other two held two shaggy rabbits. They looked rabid. "Rabid rabbits," Billy whispered to the cowering bunnies. It was a fairly pathetic attraction. Why did they call it a petting zoo? he wondered. Everything was encased; you couldn't pet these rabbits if you wanted to, and it was doubtful anyone would. Still, Billy reached a single finger through the wire mesh as best he could, and one of the furry creatures actually moved closer. With the tip of his pinky, Billy managed to flick off some of the ubiquitous crud caked beneath its left eye. He tried to get to the other eye to clean it as well, but the rabbit withdrew to the back of the cage. That was enough time for Noah's ark, and he headed for the exit.
About to step onto the gangplank, he forgot to duck while moving through the kiddie-sized doorway. Crack! Billy smashed his head just above his eyebrows. He saw brilliant comets emerging and cracking apart from a deep cherry-red background. The red then dissipated and was replaced by spirals of nausea. He almost went out, his legs buckling beneath him as he reached out blindly and grabbed on to the wood casing of an empty cage.
Lowering himself to one knee, Billy waited for his head to clear. He was thankful that the impact had thrown him backward rather than straight ahead. He imagined the embarrassment of tumbling forward down the gangplank of Noah's ark, directly into the pond, flopping and splashing about, not to mention the ancillary pain of being attacked by obstinate geese. He hesitantly checked his forehead as he began to rise, squeamish about confronting the size of the lump. It was large, worse than he expected. Also, there was blood on his hand—lots of it. He could now feel its slow traverse downward into his eyes and past his nose. It was time to leave.
Billy came to a halt near the birdcage. He gave a quick look around and, to his dismay, discovered that he was trapped inside the petting zoo. There were no trees growing from the inside over the fence, so he was not going to be leaving the way he got in. He decided to circle the edges and see what his options were. On the outside edges of the zoo, dozens of trees grew right beside the fence, but there wasn't the scrawniest sapling rising within the zoo to help Billy boost his way over the fence.
He was about five feet past the cage when he first heard the voice: "Quite a whack you got there, eh?" It was a strange-sounding voice, and though it was slightly high-pitched, he knew immediately that it was male. Billy chalked it up to the effects of a mild concussion. Billy heard the voice again, this time infinitely more distinct: "You have to remember where you are, and when to duck. A painter should have a better understanding of scale. By the way, if you're lost for a way out, there's a ladder over there leaning against the ponies' so-called stable."
Billy turned around to face the birdcage only a few feet behind him. It was the only place that the sound could have come from. He circled the structure and found nothing and nobody. He surveyed every direction and there was no hint of any speakers, microphones, or amplifiers. Besides, there was nothing electronic, no matter how sophisticated, about that voice. In the cage were perched a sparrow hawk and a raven, the raven's talons dug so deeply into a wood branch that the bird could have been stuffed. Nonetheless, as Billy looked down, he could have sworn his peripheral vision caught the black bird opening and closing one eye. Quickly turning back, he saw the bird's eyes were once more tightly shut. Now, Billy assumed, he was dealing with visual as well as auditory delusions.
It was all some form of passing insanity, he was about to conclude, but whoever had done the speaking in this elaborate trick was, thankfully, as good as his word. Across the park and in the shadows, Billy saw a large painter's ladder on the side of the red pony stable. He turned and headed for it. As he was dragging the aluminum ladder toward the tree where he had entered, Billy heard the voice one more time: "I'll be seeing you soon. Good luck with your quest."
Billy found a path leading out onto Fifth Avenue. He crossed it and began speeding across 64th Street toward Madison. The voice was right, he thought; he did have a quest before him. Only now he wasn't just seeking equilibrium in speed, but sanity as well. His thoughts were racing, but his legs could no longer keep up with his brain. He was exhausted. He stopped at the traffic island on glittering Park Avenue, looking downtown, the chain of lights there, red, yellow, and all that green, all ending with the golden-lit façade of the huge Helmsley Building. It seemed like an Aztec temple. They offered their heroes and losers to the gods. All the colors kept repeating, mixing with racing thoughts of bloody Aztec sacrifices, crude stone knives, and buttercups in nursery rhyme. It caused a feeling of vertigo and settled in his mouth with nausea. Leaning over the well-tended hedge, he puked onto the flower bed and collapsed to his knees.
Billy's forehead rested on some cool shrubs. He was just beginning to feel his body settle when a twig sprang out of the bush and slapped him in the eyelid. He saw stars…; literally, stars in black and white clusters scanning galaxies dripping paint, old as the big bang, fresh as the cans of acrylic in his studio. The voices in his mind were giddy. More nursery rhymes. Sharply polished daggers of milky quartz crystal, dripping with blood. Golden rays and human sacrifices in the glowing Helmsley Building. Still on his knees, Billy vomited again and pressed his hand to his face. He finally opened his eyes and saw nothing but a blank expanse. Good, he thought. I'm blind.
To Billy Wolfram's immediate regret, sight was returning to his eyes. First he saw an abstract field of colors beneath the bright streetlights, then there was a return to tear-swelled focus. It must have been an optical trauma from the whacking by the shrub branch, or perhaps a hysterical symptom of his racing thoughts. That didn't matter at the moment. As he wiped the fluid blur from his eyes, he realized that he was sitting in the back seat of a police car, speeding uptown with lights and siren on full tilt. Yelling above the spinning red noise, he asked the cop in the passenger seat what was going on. The cop, playing with the foil from a gum wrapper, didn't even move his head to face Billy as he curtly informed him that he had been deemed a danger to himself and to others. This, by law, meant that they were forced to secure him to the nearest psychiatric hospital for evaluation, and they were at that moment on their way to Metropolitan Hospital Center on 97th Street. "You can't be out on the street yelling to every passerby that you're about to sacrifice them in a ritual stabbing," the cop said, still staring forward. "That's known as making threats. Can you grasp what I'm saying, sir?"
"I wasn't doing that," Billy replied. Authority figures scared the hell out of him. "I wasn't threatening anybody. I was making a joke was all it was…; saying that this is what people were doing in the Helmsley Building. There was no harm intended."
"It wasn't a very funny joke, sir. The doorman who called it in said you had a knife. Now, we looked around and did not find any knife, but that doesn't mean you didn't toss it and we just couldn't come up with it."
"I didn't have any knife." Billy had grown from scared to confused. "Surely you searched me and found no weapons. I was talking about those ancient stone knives that the Aztec Indians of Mexico would use in their sacrifices. That's what I meant was going on in the Helmsley Building. The way it was lit up it reminded me of one of those Aztec temples."
"Forget about the knife." The cop finally turned and spoke to Billy in profile, squinting at him through one eye. "Nobody saw a knife, so we're not going to worry about that. The threats you were shouting—which were substantiated by witnesses—were enough. Anyway, I thought you were blind. You kept yelling you were blind. And what's with the gash on your forehead? Is that where the blood on your frilly white shirt came from?"
"I'm not blind! That was just a temporary thing from getting poked in the eye by a bush…; and as far as this cut on my forehead, that was another accident, running into a low, uh, tree branch. This whole thing is all a mistake. I was just a little confused and upset, and certainly had no intention of hurting anyone. It was nothing more than a bad moment, a kind of fugue state I guess you'd have to call it. You see, I was having a bad reaction to these paintings I was looking at. I'm an artist and the perspective broke down into an essence I couldn't sustain. They just freaked me out and I began to run and…; well, that's not important at all. It was all a bad moment, man. Really, my head is quite clear now. I don't need to go to any hospital. I'm fine. If you'd just be kind enough to take me back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I'm quite certain that my dealer would vouch for me."
"Your dealer," the cop said, perking up. "You're beautiful, pal. I'm sure your dealer would vouch for you. I mean, you must be one of his best-dressed customers. We don't even know who you are for certain. You have no I.D. on you…; just four thousand in cash. That's serious money, especially for an artist. We got the line on artists, and most would be doing well holding four dollars."
"No, no, no," Billy burst out nervously, seeing this was all taking a truly bad turn. "I mean my art dealer. I'm a painter, and he works for me, selling my finished pieces. He owns one of the largest galleries in New York. You guys thought I was referring to some kind of drugs thing? That's ridiculous. I pride myself on never having taken any drugs. I have a lot of friends that abuse various drugs, but I've never touched them. See, this is all really some big screw-up. I never carry I.D. on me, but you can call up the Met on your radio and check me out. Please, turn your car around, or just let me out. I'll get a cab and go straight home."
"We can't do that, sir," the driver said, speaking up for the first time as he turned onto 96th Street. "People signed complaints, so at this point you are in the system and we're just doing our job. You can take it all up with the doctors. Don't be upset, now. I'm gonna bet that it's all gonna turn out to be all right. By the way, would you care to give us the names of some of these friends of yours? The ones who take all these drugs?"
The other cop began to shake in silent laughter. Billy saw that his fate was sealed. He was going to be checked out by head doctors in some ratty psycho ward. He sank into the back seat, resigned, wishing that the blindness had lasted longer. "Fucking Velázquez," he whispered.
Posted April 14, 2011
"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 ecst
Posted November 18, 2010
A touching reinterpretation of the life and observations of the late Jim Carroll, as portrayed through the fictional character Billy Wolfrom. The spirit of all life's influences on Carroll are woven throughout, and communicated with his usual rich use of the English language, mixed with his own New York vernacular. This final work, was in his hands to the day of his passing; leaving us here alone to ponder the meaning of life through his words.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 10, 2011
No text was provided for this review.