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In this lesson, we will summarize, analyze, and discuss the characters in ‘The Petting Zoo’ by Jim Carroll. This is a novel about an artist who succumbs to mental illness.

Author

Certain songs, like ‘(Sittin’On) The Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding and ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ by Janis Joplin haunt fans who search for hints or messages from the artists that might explain their untimely deaths as these songs were released posthumously. The same is true for The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll.Perhaps best known for The Basketball Diaries, which is a novel about the author’s teenage drug addiction and was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carroll also wrote poetry and performed in a punk rock band. After living the life of a rock star with friends and associates like Patti Smith, Allen Ginsburg, Andy Warhol, and Keith Richards, Carroll’s health had substantially deteriorated by his 50s.

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He suffered from hepatitis, circulation problems, and mental illness before losing his life to a heart attack at the age of 60 just as he was putting the finishing touches on The Petting Zoo. Let’s learn more about this novel that, while not autobiographical, is reflective of the author’s life.

Characters

The Petting Zoo has several colorful characters. The following list can be used as a resource while reading this story.

  • Billy Wolfram is the protagonist. He is a famous 38-year-old artist who has had a breakdown and gone into seclusion.
  • Marta is Billy’s assistant. She is the most important person in his life and the only employee he doesn’t fire when he becomes ill.
  • Denny MacAbee is Billy’s childhood friend who comes to visit him in his seclusion. He is now a famous rock star.

  • Max Bernbaum is an art dealer who has become Billy’s mentor.

The Night Billy Changes

The story begins with Billy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at the Velazquez exhibit. Something about the paintings triggers Billy, making him feel that he needs to run away. Carroll’s stream of consciousness writing style, which includes long sentences and paragraphs, reinforces the message that Billy is ‘prone to ‘racing thoughts.’After resting outside for some time in the park, he walks to the zoo, which is closed. He walks around the animal enclosures until he finds the petting zoo. In this area, he ‘could feel the animal spirits diffusing the dilemma of Velasquez.

‘ As he is leaving, Billy hits his head on a tree branch, giving himself a concussion. This is when Billy first meets the talking raven that remains with him as a sort of guide throughout the story.Billy is arrested and taken to a psychiatric hospital. When he rants about his dealer, the officer does not realize he is referring to Max and assumes he is on drugs.

Billy doesn’t take drugs, even though he has plenty of opportunity since Denny is a heavy drug user.

The Past Affects the Present

While lying in the hospital bed on his prescribed medications, Billy moves back and forth between remembering the past and experiencing his present circumstances. This type of flexible chronology continues throughout the story. As he remembers the past, he wonders how the events in his life have shaped his experiences.For example, he has a hard time dealing with his sexual feelings with Marta and wonders if it has something to do with his mother bursting into the bathroom to announce, ‘John Kennedy is dead,’ only to discover Billy sitting on the toilet masturbating.

After Billy is released from the hospital, he fires most of his staff and lives mostly as a recluse, except for Marta, Denny, Max, and the imaginary raven. Each of these relationships plays a part in Billy’s growth. The raven explains, ‘I have come to fill you with sublime terror. I will leave you in bliss or in madness, but it is time you moved on to another level. You are stagnating, in both your life and work.’The message is that standing still is worse than any possible outcome of taking a leap of faith.

Lesson Summary

The Petting Zoo is Jim Carroll’s last work, which was published posthumously.

In addition to being a novelist, the author was a poet and a punk rocker who traveled in circles with famous musicians. By the time this story was written, Carroll’s heavy drug use had taken its toll on his physical and mental health.The novel is about a famous artist, Billy Wolfram, who suffers from mental illness that is brought about upon seeing the work of Velasquez.

He is so moved that he breaks into a petting zoo where he hits his head on a tree branch. From that point, he believes a raven speaks to him and tries to guide him from his stagnant current state to the next level of consciousness. Billy spends some time in a psychiatric hospital before withdrawing to a reclusive state where Marta, Denny MacAbee, and Max Bernbaum, as well as the raven, help Billy grow.

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