Friday, December 10, 2010

The Petting Zoo / by Jim Carroll

Jim Carroll is best remembered for his 1978 autobiographical memoir The Basketball Diaries chronicling his life as a teenage junkie on the streets of New York City. The book caused something of a ruckus when the 1993 film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg came under heavy scrutiny for its drug content and extreme violence. A particular scene in which DiCaprio as Carroll hallucinates about murdering his classmates was reviled in the wake of the Columbine Massacre for its uncanny familiarity to the actual school shooting. Lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims' families claimed the scene inspired the two perpetrators in their methodology. The Petting Zoo, published earlier this year only months after the author's death from a heart attack, is a smart and vivid examination of a New York City artist beset by some serious mental problems.

In New York City in the 1980's, Billy Wolfram is a hot young painter making his reputation through some startlingly provocative (and lucrative) post-modern creations. Not unlike many successful artists, Billy is a bit odd and at times seemingly out of touch with his surroundings. His eccentricities even suggest a creeping mental illness though most of his clique of groupies don't percieve it as much of a cause for concern. But when his growing obsessiveness and spacy episodes reach a crescendo, Billy has a nervous breakdown. It's more a psychotic episode really, a fit of insanity so severe that it lands a rambling Billy on the streets of the city and ultimately in to Central Park's petting zoo where his fondling of the animals arouses suspicion. His odd behaviour incites enough of a scene that authorities soon apprehend him and, after questioning, facilitate his admission in to a mental hospital.
The doctors tell him it's nothing too serious. They think Billy's condition is little more than a routine obsessive/compulsive disorder and release him with some medication after a short stay. Returning to his apartment, Billy holes up alone for an indefinite period of time and, so that he won't be disturbed, fires everyone who works for him save for his personal assistant Marta. His only "real" companion during this time is a raven he'd spotted previously at the petting zoo who oddly chooses Billy's balcony to light on. After a few weeks of this type of seclusion, aided by several lengthy discourses with the raven and a few less-welcoming visits from Marta, Billy begins his descent into full-blown madness. But as his grip on reality begins to loosen, bits and pieces about his past are slowly illuminated, unraveling an oddly enlightening backstory into the life and mind of this curious yet unique individual.
Carroll's last book shouldn't have been his last. At times it delivers some of the most curiously profound insights you'll come across in modern literature, containing the self-reflections of a mad man who's madness may be his undoing but is also an antecedent for his artwork and, subsequently, his livelihood. Billy is a great muse for Carroll, an author whose own psychological problems and vices inherently gave him a voice. And though there's no great lessons learned throughout, subtle truths and nuances deepen the intrigue and flesh out the character. Through Billy's discussions with the raven, a product of his delirium who speaks with the protagonist as if the pair were old friends in a cafe, we learn about the character's disturbing childhood, the death of his mother, and a certain deeply traumatic event which onset his mental instability. Of course it sparked his creative vision as well and, in retrospect, set him up for both professional success and private failure. 'Petting Zoo' is a worthwhile read. At times funny, at times sad, it's interesting if only for its characterization of the often complementary relationship between mental illness and art. (FIC CARROLL)

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