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.

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

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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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