A Look Back at Jim Carroll: How the Poet and Basketball Diaries Author Finally Finished His First Novel

Like so many denizens of the New York that pro­duced Warhol and The Vel­vet Under­ground, then grit­ty punk rock, hip-hop, and no wave, poet Jim Car­roll didn’t fare so well into Bloomberg-era NYC, a developer’s par­adise and des­ti­na­tion for urban pro­fes­sion­als and tourists, but not so much a haven for strug­gling artists. As the city changed, its cre­ative char­ac­ters either rose above its shift­ing demo­graph­ics, moved away, or—as Car­roll did—retreated. Car­roll, who died in 2009 at 60, spent his last years in the upper Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood of Inwood—once a bustling Irish-Catholic enclave—living in the same build­ing where he’d grown up and writ­ing against time to fin­ish his first and only nov­el, The Pet­ting Zoo. His last years were by no means trag­ic, how­ev­er. Giv­en the tumult of his ear­ly years as an addict, and the long list of friends from the down­town New York scene that Car­roll lost along the way—to over­dos­es, AIDS, can­cer, suicide—I’d say he was a lit­er­ary sur­vivor, who died (at his writ­ing desk, it’s said) doing what he loved most.

Car­roll came to main­stream con­scious­ness with the release of a 1995 film star­ring Leonar­do DiCaprio, based on the book Carroll’s most known for: the 1978 mem­oir The Bas­ket­ball Diaries, a col­lec­tion of teenage jour­nal entries from his dou­ble life as a high school bas­ket­ball star and junkie hus­tler. But even with that movie’s nods to Carroll’s mature years as a poet and musi­cian, it’s doubt­ful that few peo­ple came away with much more than a vague sense of what the street-wise Catholic school­boy DiCaprio char­ac­ter had gone on to do. Which is a shame, because Car­roll real­ly was a ter­rif­ic writer, from his debut poet­ry pub­li­ca­tions in the 60s and on through­out the next three decades. Even in the obscu­ri­ty and semi-seclu­sion of his lat­er years, he wrote wise, inci­sive essays and crit­i­cism (such as this 2002 review of Kurt Cobain’s pub­lished Jour­nals for the Los Ange­les Times). And despite the mem­oir and film’s pop­u­lar­i­ty, Car­roll con­sid­ered him­self pri­mar­i­ly a poet, in the sym­bol­ist tra­di­tion of his lit­er­ary heroes Rilke, Rim­baud, and Ash­bery. (See Car­roll at top, in his harsh New York accent, read from his 1986 col­lec­tion of poems, The Book of Nods.)

In a man­ner of speak­ing, Car­roll suf­fered the curse of one-hit-won­derism, except in his case, he was lucky enough to have two hits—the mem­oir (and lat­er film) and the song, “Peo­ple Who Died,” from Catholic Boy, his debut album with the Jim Car­roll Band (video above), which even made it onto the E.T. sound­track (giv­ing Car­roll roy­al­ties for life). The band came about with the encour­age­ment of Carroll’s fel­low poet and for­mer room­mate Pat­ti Smith, after Car­roll kicked hero­in and moved to Cal­i­for­nia. Car­roll wrote songs for Blue Oys­ter Cult and Boz Scaggs and col­lab­o­rat­ed with Ran­cid, Son­ic Youth’s Lee Ranal­do, Pat­ti Smith gui­tarist Lenny Kaye, and gui­tarist Anton Sanko (on his 1998 return to music, Pools of Mer­cury). His years in rock and roll trans­mut­ed through most of the nineties into dra­mat­ic read­ings, spo­ken word per­for­mances, and live­ly mono­logues, such as those col­lect­ed on the 1991 release Pray­ing Man­tis. In the track below, “The Loss of Amer­i­can Inno­cence,” Car­roll deliv­ers some sham­bling, and pret­ty fun­ny, sto­ries about the char­ac­ters in his nov­el-in-progress.

Car­roll had been telling these sto­ries about Bil­ly the down­town painter and a cer­tain chat­ty raven since the late 80s. As the mono­logues crys­tal­lized into short prose pieces, he slow­ly, painstak­ing­ly assem­bled them into The Pet­ting Zoo, which saw pub­li­ca­tion in 2010. It took him twen­ty years, and he didn’t live to see it pub­lished, but he left a final lega­cy behind, and it’s a flawed but seri­ous work worth read­ing. In 2010, Carroll’s long­time friends Pat­ti Smith and Lenny Kaye cel­e­brat­ed the novel’s pub­li­ca­tion with read­ings and per­for­mances at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. Below, see Smith read an excerpt from The Pet­ting Zoo. The sound’s a bit tin­ny and the cam­era shakes, but it’s worth it to see liv­ing leg­end Smith read from Carroll’s leg­endary final song.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith Reads Her Final Words to Robert Map­plethor­pe

The Life and Con­tro­ver­sial Work of Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Map­plethor­pe Pro­filed in 1988 Doc­u­men­tary

Rock and Roll Heart, 1998 Doc­u­men­tary Retraces the Remark­able Career of Lou Reed

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Buster McNamara says:

    cool entry, thx for the video of his work in progress

  • Christy J says:

    I liked read­ing this arti­cle very much and I thank you for it. But I cringed when I read you describe Jim’s accent as a “harsh New York accent.” The days of the Archie Bunker, Woody Allen or Travis Bick­le (or Deniro him­self for that mat­ter) accents are a dying breed. Lit­er­al­ly. I heard a lin­guist expert on NPR a while back talk about how gen­er­a­tions are chang­ing in ways that are water­ing down the old­er NYC accents. Which I find sad. Jim had one of those accents. I loved hear­ing him talk. Harsh? (Me winc­ing). Such a dis­mis­sive adjec­tive for some­thing so near and dear, and soon to be one for the his­to­ry books accord­ing to lin­guist guy. Thick, maybe.
    The oth­er one will be obvi­ous to any­one who knows Jim’s work. He wrote The Book of Nods in 1986, a bril­liant, poignant, dis­turb­ing, delec­table, wrench­ing col­lec­tion of Jim’s best poet­ry (in my hum­ble). I hope refer­ring to it as, “The Book of Nod” is a typo. I real­ize this may seem like nit-pick­ing to the casu­al observ­er. But then again the casu­al observ­er won’t find him/herself read­ing this arti­cle. Per­haps I just feel so in love with Jim Car­roll, his work, his mem­o­ry, his mark and some­times slash on this world that see­ing a harm­less-cum-care­less error almost hurts.
    All the same, I am over­joyed to be read­ing about Jim Car­roll. Still.
    Btw…I enjoyed every page of The Pet­ting Zoo. And maybe not because it was per­fect­ly writ­ten. It was­n’t of course. Only writ­ten in per­fect Jim­car­rol­lism. I can­not cor­rect­ly express how it felt to get clos­er and clos­er to the end of the book. Some­thing along the lines of griev­ing the fact I’d nev­er read any­thing new by him again.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks, Christy. I like Jim’s accent quite a bit. I did­n’t intend to den­i­grate it. You’re right, “thick” might be a bet­ter adjec­tive. And yes, “Book of Nod” is a typo. Cor­rect­ed.

  • This SO reminds me that I need to com­pile my OWN diary and get it in print! I have a very sim­i­lar cir­cum­stance as Jim.I’ve sur­vived my own New York (and oth­er des­ti­na­tions) tale.I’m 59 and now reside in Cali as well.I ‘be also been sober for 15 years.My kids don’t get me, even tho’ they have their own tales to tell.Each gen­er­a­tion thinks they’ve got this life thing (!)Hah!They should all just look back…

  • Judith landgraf says:

    As an aspir­ing poet, bas­ket­ball fan and for­mer New York­er, I have always held a place in my heart for Jim Car­roll. Thanks for remind­ing me.

  • Clare Troup says:

    I love a NYC accent I am from Scot­land and I love my accent and intend to keep it and I am a nomadic free spir­it and hope to get to NYC and Chica­go one day would love to go in fall.
    I get told I have a heavy accent but I love it.
    I also write poet­ry and did a short sto­ry dislex­ic so I write how I talk and think
    I love in forced entries when Jim talks about how the peo­ple in Cal­i­fo­ri­na were with him about his NYC accent and he says he not change it loved it because I am the same where ever I roam I will always be Scot­tish and proud off how I sound its char­ac­ter­its who I am and I dont want to be eany­one else.
    But I dont use scot­tish slang in my work as I want every one to under­stand and its hard to read like Irven Welsh trainspot­ting the Eng­lish need­ed subs haha­hah

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