The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Summary, Characters, & Analysis

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

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.


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. 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.


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.

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