Home > Research > Book Reviews > Review of The Petting Zoo by Susanna Sonnenberg

The Petting Zoo

Billy Wolfram is a famous artist, a mega-star of the important art world in New York City, and he has been since he was 19 years old. He's represented, protected, subsidized, talked about and given free rein, everything an artist could desire. In fact, nothing has really ever gone wrong in his career, until the moment "The Petting Zoo" opens.

In Jim Carroll's posthumous novel, Billy undergoes a hallucinatory breakdown after looking at Velázquez paintings in the Met, and proceeds to tumble down the rabbit hole - in this case, the Met steps - and into Central Park, where he hops a fence and finds himself in the petting zoo, "a remnant of a bygone architectural age - the Candy Land school, circa Cold War 1950s." A talking raven tries to help.

Part lukewarm satire, part existential crisis, this novel throws together a million things from what must have been Carroll's fast-working brain. He writes so well in the first pages about the torment of a brain that cannot rest, a genius that cannot shut off, that I settled in for a smart and entertaining ride, but once Billy scuffles with the cops and spends a few days in a mental ward, where the crazies serve to remind the protagonist he's not that badly off, he returns to his loft where his adoring assistant Marta waits for him, and he holes up in his room to reflect on his life. At this point "The Petting Zoo" stalls out.

Carroll, author of the celebrated "Basketball Diaries," poet and musician, died at age 60 while "putting the finishing touches" on "The Petting Zoo," according to the jacket copy. Patti Smith's introductory note to the reader says he died on Sept. 11, 2009, a piece of information used, I'm sorry to say, to make the untimely death seem tragic and portentous and to imbue the novel with these characteristics as well. With such a burden of context, the novel must show true, great purpose, something Carroll didn't have time to oversee.

The novel has its discrete pleasures. It progresses in a series of episodes, some thoughtfully conceived and executed, such as the story of the origin of Billy's sexual dysfunction, which began in adolescence when his mother interrupted him masturbating with a piece of veal to tell him Kennedy had been shot. You wouldn't think a writer would care to touch Portnoy's infamous escapade, but Carroll makes it his own with lively description and comic internal musing.

Another dead-on portrait is of Max, Billy's cynical art benefactor/father figure, whose worldly ways and surprisingly heartfelt love for the artist transform Billy's isolation, letting the real artist emerge. The author gives artists' block its due, too. When Billy wonders what the talking raven wants with him, the bird says, "It's quite simple really ... I have come to fill you with sublime terror. I will leave you in bliss or in madness, but it is time you moved on to another level. You are stagnating, in both your life and work." Readers prone to the grand pronouncements of teenage malaise may love the ramblings, the absolutes and the metaphor-laden urban tale, but what do they add up to?

The novel speeds up and slows down, speeds up and slows down, maybe to mimic the bipolar musings that unravel in the minds of many artists. Carroll's eye wanders, his attention drifts, just as Billy's does, and each time I was hopeful the novel was on track, it gently ran out of steam. Billy and his creator meditate on the nature of art and commerce, love and sex, civilization and the wreck of the human heart, often conducted in dialogue with random city creatures - a cabbie or the talking raven - but I wished Carroll was still here to tighten up these bubbling pages, to wrestle all that aching talent under control.

© 2010 Hearst Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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