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Critics' Picks: Best Books of 2010

Review of The Petting Zoo

The Petting Zoo is one of the most noteworthy novels of 2010. It achieves this status not by literary merit alone – or even primarily. The most significant feature of this story of artistic angst and biblical allusion is that Jim Carroll died, aged 60, while working on the final draft in 2009. It is sadly the "alpha and omega" of Carroll's work as a writer of fiction.

Jim Carroll was no flashing meteor on the cultural scene, however. By the time of his death, he had two books of autobiographical writing on his resume. The Basketball Diaries was first published in 1978 and later became a cult hit of the 1980?s. Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973, continued the story of Carroll's immersion into the drug culture of the1970's. Carroll also published several collections of highly regarded poetry and headed a punk rock band that flirted with big time success in the early 1980's.

Carroll had, moreover, the trappings of legend about him. The "Catholic Boy" rebel personified the iconoclastic, self-destructive New York scene of the 1970's. He was a living link to the world of Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and sex without fear of AIDS. And now Carroll is gone too. The Petting Zoo, in its way, is an elegy to this ever-more remote milieu. Yet, its over-arching theme is far more serious than that. The novel charts the interior struggle of an artist, Billy Wolfram, who suddenly confronts the unpleasant fact that his considerable status as a painter and sculptor has less to do with his talents than it does to his role as a Manhattan celebrity.

Billy Wolfram, like Carroll, hails from Irish Catholic working class roots. His upward assent in the contemporary art scene was anything but assured. But then Billy comes face-to-face with paintings by the 17th century master, Diego Velázquez, at the glittering opening to an art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A panic attack sends him wandering about Manhattan in a state of severe distraction. He winds up in Central Park's Petting Zoo, taking a blow to the head from a tree limb and talking to a raven who may or may not be real. Surreal scenes like Billy's encounter with the raven alternate with meditations on his Irish Catholic boyhood and early artistic career. Billy's attempt to unravel life's mysteries is by turns spiritually bleak and darkly humorous. Carroll's abundant writing skill, however, fails to fuse the flash-backs of the early Billy with the travail of his latter day self. Too often, memories of a young Billy grappling with his sexuality just get in the way of an otherwise absorbing novel.

The Petting Zoo is the work of a genius, rather than a work of genius. For all that, it deserves a wide readership and serious literary consideration. If an author only gets one chance to write a serious novel, then it had better deal with universal themes. Despite its flaws, Jim Carroll's The Petting Zoo does exactly that.

The original article can be found here



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