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The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll

He did not believe himself, but he
believed in his mother's belief.
This review contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I'd forgotten all about Jim Carroll. When I was between school and university in 1995, and the Di Caprio movie of Carroll's diaries came out, it was all my friends and peers were talking about. Perverse then as I am now, I refused to watch it; didn't get around to it until I was nearer thirty than twenty. But then I was mooching around on iTunes and it happened to recommend, given recent purchases of The Replacements and The Dead Milkmen, 'People Who Died' from the album Catholic Boy by The Jim Carroll Band, a song by the way which is both rocking and crushing, and I was pulled in by the Ramones-esque guitars, the crisp, punchy snare sound, and Carroll's hip, New York voice singing lyric poetry about friends who've died in the most terrible fashion, self-inflicted and accidental, all of whom were friends of his.

His iTunes biog mentioned being an author, and the pieces clicked. I was (partially) defeated in my cynicism, went straight out and bought a hard-back of The Petting Zoo (I still don't want to read about a child's addiction to heroin), and was delighted to find a forward by Patti Smith, and saddened to learn he'd died alone in New York on September 11th 2009, a date filled with enough suitable pathos to elicit an empathetic if metaphorical tear. I also learned he'd left the manuscript unfinished, and that his friends and editors and completed the task as sympathetically as they could. In retrospect, this might explain a few things.

His iTunes biog also mentions how difficult it often is for poets to translate their talents to writing music and to other genres, and how Jim Carroll is a notable success. On the basis of The Petting Zoo they are not wrong–there is poetry on every page, but balanced in parts by some passages of clunky philosophical extemporising. But the essential story is of a wunderkind whose mojo is stunted after what, on the surface, might look like a very incidental encounter with an art exhibition, who undertakes a period of deep introspection, considering the arc of his life's narrative and what drives him to create, from where his talents are drawn, and how art and life interact. But his search for a way back to art forces irrevocable changes in his life and on those around him, and his eventual obsession results in him freezing to death in his studio apartment during some extremely unseasonable weather, while being lectured by an immortal raven whose advice had helped bring Billy to both his zenith and nadir in quick succession.

I was desperate to love this book. I probably do. But it has its flaws. Billy Wolfram is my age or thereabouts, and speaks to many of my own anxieties, of many of everyone's anxieties I don't doubt. Carroll's prose is in parts amazing and otherworldly. However, his dialogue is occasionally heavy and unrealistic. Some of the passages where Billy replays conversations and experiences with his childhood friend Denny where both talk about the facts of creation (Denny is an artist too, a musician) are sometimes artificial, or at least feel like they might not fit, might not be quite what Carroll would have wanted to say–they're too indirect, feeling like someone who has an incomplete grasp of the matter and is working out what he's trying to say as he goes along. By contrast, many of the passages on Billy's expired Catholicism flow freely as if from a full well of experience and studied thought. His car journey from the hospital back to his flat, throughout which he holds a conversation with the pretty enlightened Hindu driver is both thought-provoking and made me smile broadly. The story about the veal and President Kennedy is teeth-grindingly realistic and awful (although I wonder at its power to completely over-shadow the rest of his life), but in some instances the supporting cast, Denny, Martha, former agent Max, feel a little less than fleshed out. Billy himself is occasionally incongruent, but then that might be by design rather than accident or omission.

Reading this all back to myself, I notice two things: firstly, that I desperately need an editor to knock my prose in to shape, and secondly that I'm coming over slightly ambivalent about this novel. I want to clear up that second point–this is good, and I like it quite a lot. I just wonder what shape it might have had he lived to complete it himself.

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