Book Review: “The Petting Zoo” by Jim Carroll
This is the posthumous novel by literary giant and author of The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll. It is the story of Billy Wolfram, a painter and small-time celebrity of the late-eighties New York City art scene.
Last year the NYC art scene seemed to be a hot topic for novels, including Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall and Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty. With books like these, which detail the inner worlds of the creative, it’s difficult not to think they are really a mirror for the author’s own feelings about writing. In The Petting Zoo, the word ‘writer’ could easily replace the word ‘painter’, as the word ‘editor’ could replace the words ‘art dealer’, and ‘novel’ could replace ‘painting’. After achieving fame, Wolfram attends a gallery show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 17th Century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez. He is so struck by the majestic spirituality evident in Velazquez’s work that he doubts his abilities as an artist to produce anything of meaning and to even paint ever again. Much like Carroll, he’s not in it for the money. He wants his art to mean something to people, but he can’t decide whether or not it should stand for something.
His misadventure begins when he checks into the mental ward of a hospital. He stays only overnight, then retreats into his Manhattan apartment for weeks of wallowing in self-pity, watching old TV shows, and occasionally seeing his live-in assistant. Wolfram is pretty much a recluse to begin with, but once he’s locked away in his loft he begins avoiding calls from his newly-appointed obnoxious art dealer in favor of conferring with a small black crow, who perched upon his windowsill, explains that he is two thousand years old and was a crew member of Noah’s Arc. The bird has been assigned to help Billy and to bring him back from the brink of despair, but the artist may be too far gone to accept the help.
Carroll’s final story is a serious, but fascinating meditation on personal beliefs, how to design them, and whether or not to express them to the world through art. It’s been said time and time again, but it’s an argument worth noting that art, in any form, should not be dogmatic. It should open minds to ideas, giving people the opportunity to form their own opinions. Billy, though, struggles with the contradiction that arrogance is counter-intuitive to this method, but is somehow necessary for him to be taken seriously as an artist.