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The Petting Zoo, the first and only novel by Basketball Diaries memoirist Jim Carroll, is a densely hallucinogenic work of creative ego and improbable muses. Autobiographical elements, however, break sharply through its haze.
Unlike The Basketball Diaries, in The Petting Zoo—which was nearly completed before his death last September—Carroll requires two characters to capture himself. It speaks to the author’s vast, complicated artistic life that he needs both protagonist Billy, a former artistic prodigy, moored in his past and taxed painfully in his pursuit of inspiration, and abrasive Denny, a swaggering rock musician and society fixture who enjoys many more fruits of fame.
New York native Carroll lived each of these characters’ lives. In 1978, he rose to instant acclaim and Andy Warhol’s inner circle with his frank drug- and sex-addled diaries, recorded from ages 12 to 16. He kicked the heroin habit that fueled his memoir and went on to write searing poetry, yet always remained best known for his debut work. During the early ’80s, encouraged by his friend Patti Smith, he fronted the Jim Carroll Band, whose acerbic and voluble punk albums became cult classics and planted Carroll back in the Manhattan art scene spotlight, which he enjoyed far more the second time around.
The Petting Zoo explores Billy’s bottlenecked creativity. A heralded painter turned agitable mental patient, he drowns himself in the bleak evocations of his work, much like Keith Haring disappearing into his own vivid lines in Annie Leibovitz’s famed portrait. During a psychotic episode at the Central Park Zoo, Billy encounters a talking raven who lays bare the frigid loneliness in his outwardly glamorous life. This feathered harbinger visits him sporadically, eventually insisting that it’s an immortal creature dating back to Noah’s Ark. “You know who I am,” the bird intones. “I am the first raven and the last raven. I am every raven you’ve ever seen.”
These exchanges—flights of fancy enough to be Genesis fan-fiction—serve as a welcome respite for Billy, who is frequently debilitated by his tortured past of sexual frustration. He broods inside his histrionic, coldly lewd memories: exploring homosexuality with cash-wielding older men, masturbating the day Kennedy was assassinated, learning the birds and the bees from a swaggering teen boy with nuns drawn carefully on his tainted fingers. Anchored in these sensational moments, he envies his only good friend, Denny, for all he’s able to accept so confidently, including the love of women. Billy’s lissome personal assistant, Marta, loves him unrequitedly, but this affection is briefly and shabbily rewarded before Billy’s jealousy of Denny derails the affair and leads him irrevocably down a miserable path the raven cautioned him against.
Carroll’s typically trippy imagery runs freely throughout the novel; his Manhattan is eternally seedy and unspooled by sin. His depictions of slovenly street vagrancies and Billy’s traumatic moments are swift, hard-hitting prose, but they jostle with slack explanatory paragraphs and a troublesome ending so narratively disjointed from the preceding chapters, it feels as if the author added it hastily or that it was tacked on posthumously by another writer. And yet, Carroll knew better than most the pitfalls of being a heralded creative upstart; this is a well-steered, sincere exploration of the art world’s secretive inner politics.