The Petting Zoo

The Petting Zoo: A Novel BY Jim Carroll. Viking Adult. Hardcover, 336 pages. $25.

The cover of The Petting Zoo: A Novel

The twenty-years-in-the-making posthumous first novel of downtown poet, musician, and Basketball Diarist Jim Carroll tells the story of Billy Wolfram, a thirty-eight-year-old “’80s artist” who suffers a spiritual crisis after viewing Velázquez paintings at the Met. He stumbles from the museum to the Central Park Zoo and into a series of coincidences that help him reevaluate his life and his work. The coincidences also serve as transitions between episodic stories that frequently feel kitchen-sink inclusive and random. After smashing his head exiting the zoo’s miniature Noah’s Ark, he hears from an “immortal” raven who becomes a recurring visitor, spouting Mr. Miyagi–meets-Yoda advice: “You have to remember where you are, and when to duck. A painter should have a better understanding of scale.” A breakdown in the street leads to some time in a mental ward, and later he grabs a taxi to his Chelsea studio with a conveniently wise Hindu driver (“discipline your breathing”).

Here he goes into “reclusion” to get his life together, his painterly groove back. In his loft, Wolfram talks to his maté-brewing assistant, Marta, and a childhood friend and rock star named Denny MacAbee. The raven resurfaces to impart self-help wisdom, chirp about his own baggage (the biblical dove who stole his thunder, his times with Gauguin and Cézanne), and suggest that if Wolfram were to reflect on his childhood and adolescence (domineering then absent father, archetypal Irish Catholic mother) and his later success at the hands of kindly dealer Max Bernbaum, he might repair his current lack of relationships and, most of all, his output. (One thing I gleaned from Carroll’s novel: If you’re an artist in the midst of a spiritual crisis, take up billiards.)

The Petting Zoo can be entertaining, and Carroll clearly put a lot of himself into it via loving descriptions of the urban landscape and evocative life-story details. But much of the writing is half-baked, the dialogue wooden, the love story hollow, the idealization of what it means to be an artist quaint, the psychology simplistic. The cloying Wolfram is living a celibate, arrested life because his mother caught him masturbating with a veal fillet at the moment JFK was assassinated. Why not just give up veal and pay closer attention to your intelligent and in-love-with-you Argentinean assistant with the “classically rounded hips”? But Carroll was downtown to the bone, and this farewell fits well on the bookshelf with a bunch of other uneven, “edgy” ’80s New York novels. Just pretend it didn’t come out in 2010.