'The Petting Zoo': Few Moments of Movement, but Huge Steaming Piles of Exposition
A Renaissance man tries, and fails, to add novel-writing to his list of achievements.
The Petting ZooPublisher: Viking
Length: 327 pages
Author: Jim Carroll
Publication date: 2010-11
Jim Carroll was something of a Renaissance man. Although never exactly prolific, he managed in his lifetime to record several albums of rock 'n' roll with The Jim Carroll Band, resulting in one legitimate semi-hit, "People Who Died", which brushed close enough to mainstream success for me to hear it on Connecticut rock radio in the '80s. His non-fiction memoir The Basketball Diaries won wide acclaim and was made into a 1995 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and in which Carroll himself played a small part. He also appeared in several documentaries.
If Basketball Diaries' 1987 follow-up Forced Entry: the Downtown Diaries wasn't quite as successful as the previous book, at least it showed that Carroll had more than one book in him. His talents were further revealed upon the publication of three volumes of poetry, including 1998's Void of Course. In short, Carroll was a guy who achieved some success at most anything he tried to do, and he tried to do almost everything.
Unfortunately, one of the last things he tried was to write a novel, and he passed away before completing it. The novel isn't particularly good; it's ponderous and dull and requires a fair bit of editing. Whether this would have taken place had he lived, I can't say. The editor's introduction suggests that the posthumous editorial tidying was undertaken with a light hand. Alas, the hand was too light by far.
The story concerns a young but successful artist named Billy Wolfram living and working in New York City, a darling of the art scene but a peripheral figure in it, skeptical of its claims and influence. While Billy is an artist by virtue of talent and hard work, his success is largely the result of his canny agent, Max Beerbaum, whose reputation in the art world can eclipse even the artists he represents.
Alas, Max died some years ago, and without his steadying hand, Billy is starting to undergo a series of increasingly unstable gyrations. The reader first meets him as he flees the pressures of a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which he is haunted by the larger-than-life figures of a Velasquez exhibit. Billy's subsequent sojourn in a mental hospital is brief, but upon his release he remains unfocused and unmotivated. Oh, and he has a big show coming up, for which he needs to create a large number of paintings. Oh, and this raven—or possibly these ravens—keep talking to him.
Billy's situation seems ripe enough for fruitful exploration, but gets bogged down fast with page after page of exposition and backstory, all told in leaden prose that sits lifeless on the page. "There are seminal memories that somehow retain not just the event, but also the emotions that accompany it. They transport one back to the exact moment, and these remembrances are so potent they carry a vague fragrance." There is paragraph after paragraph of such dull wordiness, with little dialogue or even syntactical variation to break up the monotony. "Whenever they visited a museum together, Billy recalled, Max's normally soft voice would rise markedly in enthusiasm if they happened upon an unexpected masterpiece. At an art institute in the Midwest, Max was so enthralled by a Vermeer he'd suddenly encountered that his volume began to ascend strikingly."
Elsewhere we learn, at length and in excruciating detail, about Billy's first, interrupted masturbatory experience. It's somewhat interesting enough, and yes, the point of the longwindedness of the passage is to show the narrator's obsessive self-absorption—we get it. But it's also pretty dull, and the reader gets that too, unfortunately.
Billy's memories glide through numerous episodes in the past. Much of the novel is told through flashbacks, since in the present day Billy does very little aside from sit in his apartment, brooding and listening to his housekeeper Marta. Many of Billy's memories involve his mother, his art dealer Max or his best friend Denny, a refreshingly straightforward character: a successful rock musician who happily accepts and enjoys the trappings of fame, but shares a philosophical bent with his old friend Billy.
There is precious little plot or forward momentum here. The big question in the novel is whether Billy will get his act together—un-paralyze himself and get on with the paintings for his upcoming show. As narrative hooks go, this is fairly weak. There is some faint interest in his sex life as well, an unforeseen consequence of that interrupted masturbatory episode metioned earlier. Again, this isn't much to engage a reader for 300+ pages.
No, this book is banking on its prose to hold the reader's attention. There is little story but lots of background; few moments of movement but huge steaming piles of exposition. Ultimately the reader must decide whether such a narrative strategy is adequate. "When Marta returned, a dejected Billy listened as she prepared a fresh pot of mate. The number of meticulous steps she took to prepare the Argentine breakfast drink never failed to astound Billy; the entire procedure reminded him of a ritual, like the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony. However, it was more likely that, over the many years, Marta simply became so adept at making the beverage that she developed the process itself into her own personal ritual." If such writing excites your aesthetic taste buds, then you're in for a treat.