When poet, musician, and diarist Jim Carroll died in September 2009, he was putting the finishing touches on a potent work of fiction. The Petting Zoo tells the story of Billy Wolfram, an enigmatic thirty-eight-year-old artist who has become a hot star in the late 1980s New York art scene. As the novel opens, Billy, after viewing a show of Velázquez paintings, is so humbled and awed by their spiritual power that he suffers an emotional breakdown and withdraws to his Chelsea loft. In seclusion, Billy searches for the divine spark in his own work and life. Carroll's novel moves back and forth in time to present emblematic moments from Billy's life (his Irish Catholic upbringing, his teenage escapades, his evolution as an artist and meteoric rise to fame) and sharply etched portraits of the characters who mattered most to him, including his childhood friend Denny MacAbee, now a famous rock musician; his mentor, the unforgettable art dealer Max Bernbaum; and one extraordinary black bird. Marked by Carroll's sharp wit, hallucinatory imagery, and street-smart style, The Petting Zoo is a frank, haunting examination of one artist's personal and professional struggles.
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Jim Carroll (1949-2009) was an author, poet, and punk musician best known for his 1978 autobiographical work The Basketball Diaries, which was adapted into a film in 1995.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
All the trouble, of course, began with Velázquez. Billy Wolfram was running recklessly down the wide steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Craning his head backward, he saw the huge banner with the old master's self-portrait hanging from the limestone façade. Billy was certain those cocksure eyes were fixed directly on him. Mocking him. The slick leather soles of his new shoes slid beneath him, but he recovered before falling. He sped up, watching the yellow streaks of cabs passing down Fifth Avenue. Then he turned his eyes upward to the lights swinging over the traffic like hanging torsos, frozen on red. He heard snatches of conversations from men poised on the steps, smoking in tuxedos: "So I told her it looked more like a pie chart." "I don't get these old masters...; there's something so Catholic about them...;"
He took the last nine steps three at a time, then sped south on Fifth Avenue until he reached the entrance to Central Park. His legs were straining to outrun the images in his brain and find some equilibrium in speed. A doctor friend once told Billy that he was prone to "racing thoughts." He moved slower now on the path beside the dog run, sweating through the seat of his tuxedo trousers. He was thinking about the sound of traffic out of view, and how alien the body seemed, how senseless and capricious. Nauseous, he started shaking so badly he wanted to collapse into the grass and rest, anything to lose the images of Velázquez, every detail in his paintings, every brushstroke now stuck in loops of racing thoughts.
He wondered what kind of man the old master was. Billy knew little about Velázquez in any biographical sense. Staring up at the trees, he resolved to change that, vowing to thoroughly research the maestro's life by the next day.
Billy Wolfram fixed his eyes directly at the sky, which was filmy and disguised by the lights and melancholy of the city. The cause of his outrageous behavior that night wasn't buried in some biographer's footnotes, but in the paintings themselves. It was their spirituality and haunting arrogance that had attacked Billy. The characters in the paintings still shouted out, and the volume grew until their seventeenth century voices sent him dropping to his knees. As if genuflecting in prayer, he remained in the grass and the sound of peasants, cardinals, and children of the aristocracy continued to taunt him now for the shortcomings in his own work and his frivolous life.
Billy raised himself up, returned to the path, and moved on. He had no idea how much time had passed, but despite the knees of his pants being soaked, he felt calmer. Some of the lampposts gave off light, others had been snuffed out by vandals' stones flung through the opaque casing. It was the type of bare, low light that encouraged danger and disguise, but in his present state of mind, rejuvenated by his rest in the grass, Billy walked south on the pathway without qualms or fear.
Moving through one of those semicircular brick underpasses, the ground filled with puddles and the walls with moss no matter what the weather, Billy recognized that, in his circumstances, there was no better place for him to be. In these shadows, this part of the park had no reference to time or place. He passed a homeless old couple sleeping beneath strips of cardboard. They looked up at him, both toothless, the man with a patchy gray beard. They could have been from any era or country...; the French Revolution, resting after a day among the crowds gathered to watch the guillotine do its work, finding their only entertainment in its simplicity and precision.
He was speeding up, his body finally falling comfortably into place with his mind's delirious, disheveled drive. It's amazing and terrible, he thought, distinguishing the ironies out of control within you, and not being able to do a thing about them. What he needed was something to take his mind in another direction.
There was a fork in the path; Billy recognized that the turn to the left led to the zoo, remembering for no reason that the Latin word for "left" was "sinister." Within minutes, he was on a hill overlooking the zoo.
This was fate, he thought; this was exactly what he needed. Billy had loved zoos all his life. The Central Park Zoo was antiquated. It hadn't expanded its cages for the spacious simulacra of natural habitats that many modern zoos boasted. Nonetheless, there was a unique sensation walking around its minimal confines. It was the counterpoint of all those wild, exotic creatures existing right alongside the aloof residents of obscenely priced buildings on Fifth Avenue. Creatures strutting with such certainty a few short blocks away from the neurotic and trendy. This was what passed for irony in midtown Manhattan. It was all the irony people wanted in their lives, and it was all they could handle.
Halfway down the path leading into the main zoo's north entrance, Billy was confronted by an orange DayGlo sign, surrounded by a chain-link fence: CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS.
Billy circumnavigated the barricaded site by following the grass beside the carriage path leading directly to the petting zoo. He picked up a flyer and read that it was still operating despite the reconstruction of the larger zoo. The fact that it would be closed for the night did not bother him in the least. Billy knew that animals would provide the perfect diversion to redirect his obsessed thoughts, and nothing was going to stop him from that necessity. He stopped for a moment and looked down at what remained of the old zoo. The tall spiked fence that once enclosed the polar bear still stood, and the huge centerpiece, the pool for sea lions, was all drained and dry. It wasn't as deep as he had imagined when he watched the seals circling the gray water and diving down until they were out of view. Now there were just two homeless men, barely visible in the moon shadows.
Though most of the lion house had been leveled, some of the cages were still intact. Billy felt the ghostly presence of cheetahs restlessly pacing. Beyond the brick tier of the monkey house, which remained standing, he could see the petting zoo. He moved down the rocks toward it. He could feel the animal spirits diffusing the dilemma of Velázquez, but not completely. The streetlight from Fifth Avenue played on the red and yellow leaves of the trees, and in them he saw the canvases from the museum. If he stood before a painting long enough, Billy had always thought he could reconstruct every moment of its creation. He could tell which were the starting strokes, the defining cuts of a palette knife, the transcendent afterthoughts in the thickness of pigment. It was as if he were standing in the painter's studio with him. Yet, despite the strange, shocking quality that he had seen in the maestro's canvases tonight, recreated now in the trees, he couldn't pull off that feat...; not with Velázquez. He was blocked. "This is how it should be," he whispered to himself, before stumbling down the hill to the petting zoo.
There was a metal shutter closing off the entrance, secured at the base by a huge padlock. In his current state of mind, this didn't bother Billy. He walked around the side, where his only obstruction to the zoo grounds and the animals was an old black metal fence. Actually, at second glance, it looked rather imposing...; a row of ten-foot-high rods, sharpened at the top. There was an old elm to Billy's left, however, growing right up against the outside of the fence. It might as well have been a stairway leading to a slide into the zoo. Its limbs were low to the ground, extending outward into the zoo, only about ten feet from the pond, where a duck floated alone in the dazed, diffused moonlight.
He climbed the tree with ease, but once he reached a suitable height to scale the fence, it was somewhat trickier finding a branch that would both carry him into the zoo and support his weight. He tested one, and though it began to bend precariously, he realized it would only take one more step before he could lower himself into the zoo. He took it, and the branch snapped beneath him, quickly and loud. Billy lurched forward, miraculously sidestepping the pond and landing on his feet. His tuxedo was barely wrinkled. It was amazing.
Billy surveyed the place, walking toward the glass-encased pavilion at the entrance. The lampposts offered just enough light for him to see clearly, accentuating the atmosphere of the place. The little zoo was a remnant of a bygone architectural age the Candy Land school, circa Cold War 1950s. It had a theme, an odd mixture of fairy-tale and biblical references, and abounded with details. There were the "Three Little Piggies," with houses of wood, straw, and brick. Of course, the actual pigs themselves lived in a rusting tin A-frame and were hardly little, but gigantic sows, pushing the 300-pound mark. They were also extremely unattractive, their bodies a bloated pink, with a few bristly clumps of thick hair.
There was a small Noah's ark, cantilevered out over the entrance to the pond. The pond was the centerpiece of the petting zoo, normally filled with ducks and geese. Near that was an exhibit of tropical fish housed within a glass window encased in a huge blue whale. The whale looked like something on top of an Eisenhower-era drive-in restaurant with waitresses on roller skates. Most of the fish were dead or dying. The whale's exterior paint was peeling badly, but its schizophrenic eyes still stared above a lunatic white smile.
The petting zoo rattled Billy's painterly instincts. On the day it opened, everything about it had had a postwar flamboyance, the colors lurid, artificial, and bright. Now, from time and the city's exhaust, they had faded like the decorations on a birthday cake that had sat far too long in a bakery window.
There were ponies in their red stable, locked away for the night, along with a recalcitrant llama that was fond of—and accurate at—spitting on onlookers while standing in his cramped, sorry quarters. The tops of the lampposts were shaped like buttercups. There was a black wrought-iron birdcage crowned with a wire sculpture of a robin swallowing a worm. This cage was fairly large but hardly large enough for the two fully grown birds inside, hunched sullenly on their perches.
Billy didn't have to break into Noah's ark, since there was no door on it. He quietly slouched up the gangplank and entered. There were ten small cages. Eight were empty; the other two held two shaggy rabbits. They looked rabid. "Rabid rabbits," Billy whispered to the cowering bunnies. It was a fairly pathetic attraction. Why did they call it a petting zoo? he wondered. Everything was encased; you couldn't pet these rabbits if you wanted to, and it was doubtful anyone would. Still, Billy reached a single finger through the wire mesh as best he could, and one of the furry creatures actually moved closer. With the tip of his pinky, Billy managed to flick off some of the ubiquitous crud caked beneath its left eye. He tried to get to the other eye to clean it as well, but the rabbit withdrew to the back of the cage. That was enough time for Noah's ark, and he headed for the exit.
About to step onto the gangplank, he forgot to duck while moving through the kiddie-sized doorway. Crack! Billy smashed his head just above his eyebrows. He saw brilliant comets emerging and cracking apart from a deep cherry-red background. The red then dissipated and was replaced by spirals of nausea. He almost went out, his legs buckling beneath him as he reached out blindly and grabbed on to the wood casing of an empty cage.
Lowering himself to one knee, Billy waited for his head to clear. He was thankful that the impact had thrown him backward rather than straight ahead. He imagined the embarrassment of tumbling forward down the gangplank of Noah's ark, directly into the pond, flopping and splashing about, not to mention the ancillary pain of being attacked by obstinate geese. He hesitantly checked his forehead as he began to rise, squeamish about confronting the size of the lump. It was large, worse than he expected. Also, there was blood on his hand lots of it. He could now feel its slow traverse downward into his eyes and past his nose. It was time to leave.
Billy came to a halt near the birdcage. He gave a quick look around and, to his dismay, discovered that he was trapped inside the petting zoo. There were no trees growing from the inside over the fence, so he was not going to be leaving the way he got in. He decided to circle the edges and see what his options were. On the outside edges of the zoo, dozens of trees grew right beside the fence, but there wasn't the scrawniest sapling rising within the zoo to help Billy boost his way over the fence.
He was about five feet past the cage when he first heard the voice: "Quite a whack you got there, eh?" It was a strange-sounding voice, and though it was slightly high-pitched, he knew immediately that it was male. Billy chalked it up to the effects of a mild concussion. Billy heard the voice again, this time infinitely more distinct: "You have to remember where you are, and when to duck. A painter should have a better understanding of scale. By the way, if you're lost for a way out, there's a ladder over there leaning against the ponies' so-called stable."
Billy turned around to face the birdcage only a few feet behind him. It was the only place that the sound could have come from. He circled the structure and found nothing and nobody. He surveyed every direction and there was no hint of any speakers, microphones, or amplifiers. Besides, there was nothing electronic, no matter how sophisticated, about that voice. In the cage were perched a sparrow hawk and a raven, the raven's talons dug so deeply into a wood branch that the bird could have been stuffed. Nonetheless, as Billy looked down, he could have sworn his peripheral vision caught the black bird opening and closing one eye. Quickly turning back, he saw the bird's eyes were once more tightly shut. Now, Billy assumed, he was dealing with visual as well as auditory delusions.
It was all some form of passing insanity, he was about to conclude, but whoever had done the speaking in this elaborate trick was, thankfully, as good as his word. Across the park and in the shadows, Billy saw a large painter's ladder on the side of the red pony stable. He turned and headed for it. As he was dragging the aluminum ladder toward the tree where he had entered, Billy heard the voice one more time: "I'll be seeing you soon. Good luck with your quest."
Billy found a path leading out onto Fifth Avenue. He crossed it and began speeding across 64th Street toward Madison. The voice was right, he thought; he did have a quest before him. Only now he wasn't just seeking equilibrium in speed, but sanity as well. His thoughts were racing, but his legs could no longer keep up with his brain. He was exhausted. He stopped at the traffic island on glittering Park Avenue, looking downtown, the chain of lights there, red, yellow, and all that green, all ending with the golden-lit façade of the huge Helmsley Building. It seemed like an Aztec temple. They offered their heroes and losers to the gods. All the colors kept repeating, mixing with racing thoughts of bloody Azte...
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