By Eryn Loeb
I canâ€™t rationalize my teenage obsession with Jim Carroll in any really satisfying way. From where I stand now, it looks predictable in a way that makes me cringe. I was about 13 when I saw the Leonardo DiCaprio movie of The Basketball Diaries, and while itâ€™s not exactly cool to admit that this adaptationâ€”in retrospect, pretty middlingâ€”is what got me into Carrollâ€™s actual diaries and poems, there it is. It didnâ€™t take long after that for me to make him into my morose teen idol. I scrawled his name in the margins of my notebooks and in Sharpie on the wall inside my closet. I Xeroxed his author photo from Fear of Dreamingâ€”his face looking beatific and ageless, his chin scruffy but cheeks dreamily smoothâ€”and taped it up by my bed, near a copy of his prose poem â€œReaching Franceâ€ (â€œWhen I reach France, every promise will be kept,â€ he wrote, sounding both prophetic and world-weary). I kept another copy of the author photo folded up in sixths in my wallet, getting worn and creased into precise little squares.
It was the kind of fixation lots of people depend on at that age: an intense fandom that becomes a way of identifying, a lust for someone real but half-imagined who you can cling to, idealize, and stubbornly call your own. This elusive, impossible love was the definition of romance to me back then. I coveted the raw, hard-won knowledge that appeared to come from a life of passion and danger and drug addiction. As a relatively sheltered teenager who idealized all sorts of trouble I couldnâ€™t quite bring myself to actually get into, there was nothing more alluring than the survival Jim Carroll seemed to represent.
As I got older, I figured out that he was a writer, not a sage. (One definition of maturity, perhaps?) His words resonated even without my adolescent mania to inflate them. Reading him felt less urgent, which was a kind of loss, but it also felt less fraught. Still, when Carroll died in 2009, the news gave me a weird jolt, my reaction tangled up with the way I knew I would have received it at age 15. I felt like I should light a candle, wear black, do some sort of ritualized mourningâ€”memorializing not just Carroll, no doubt, but the version of myself for whom poetry and its writers were simply beautiful and true. Instead, I made dinner and watched TV before going to bed, wishing I could get myself to feel more stricken.
It was both fitting and terrible to learn that Carroll had died at his writing desk. Not long after his death, I was pleased to hear that Viking would be publishing The Petting Zoo, the novel Carroll had been working on for about two decades. Apparently heâ€™d been â€œputting the finishing touchesâ€ on it, and the book was close enough to completion that it would be an indignity to leave it unpublished and unread. This was reassuring. Carroll may have been gone, but in the comforting, ghostly way that artists do, he would endure.
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By Eryn Loeb