June 02, 2011

Aesthetic Breakdown

The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll
reviewed by Courtney

Jim Carroll is best known for his collected journal entries, The Basketball Diaries, published in 1978, which recount his teenage addiction to heroin, and its impact on his life as a gifted basketball player growing up in New York. The memoir was the basis for the 1995 film of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Carroll was also known for his poetry and his flirtation with the New York music scene, most notably culminating in a single, "People Who Died," which was used on the soundtrack for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, among other films. Carroll died in 2009 of a heart attack at the age of 60, before the publication of his first novel, The Petting Zoo.

The Petting Zoo, despite moments of brilliance, is a deeply flawed novel. The book follows the character of Billy Wolfram, a famous New York painter, as he attempts to gather the threads of his life following an aesthetically induced emotional breakdown at an exhibition of Velazquez paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Billy isolates himself from his friends and his work in the time after his release from a psychiatric ward, Carroll interweaves character history from Billy's childhood in New York through the present with his attempts to find meaning in life and art after his breakdown. The book draws on Carroll's own experience of New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is these often humorous depictions of art world pretensions as Billy struggles to gain recognition for his work, as well as his relationship with his art dealer Max Beerbaum and best friend, musician Denny MacAbee, that are the novel's highlights.

As a musician and drug abuser, the character Denny draws most heavily on Carroll's past experiences, and as such often comes across as far more believable than the protagonist, Billy. Billy's deep aesthetic admiration and artistic temperament seem genuine, but his puritanical work ethic and the repeated emphasis on his ascetic lifestyle come across as contrived. Carroll's insistence on Billy's absolute refusal of drugs and other distractions is a somewhat clumsy attempt to distance himself from his character, despite the fact that most of his best work is autobiographical. The novel's posthumous publication may be partially to blame for the problematic pacing, and the heavy-handed aspects are balanced with the often-beautiful lyricism of the narration. Ultimately the poetic aspects of the novel are its high points, and the reader is reminded that Carroll's strength lies in his poetry, rather than his fiction. The Petting Zoo is not embarrassingly bad, but its strength is in recalling Carroll's other work, when judged independently it is unremarkable. Fans of his poetry and memoirs will be glad for the opportunity to watch Carroll try his hand at fiction, but newcomers would be advised to stick to the books and poetry that made him famous.

Posted by at June 2, 2011 12:29 PM
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