This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pinocchio, the wooden boy who gave up near immortality to become one of us and gain a soul. In 1883 it may have seemed a good bargain.
A lot has happened to the world since. Certainly the hero of Jerome Charyn's new novel, whenever the burden of being human becomes insurmountable, turns straight to wood. He is much safer with a thick skin and no heart. Under his coat of varnish, he can revel in being more gullible than Candide and, with that agile priapic nose of his, more wicked than Till Eulenspiegel. For whether it's read as a study in psychosis or as a fabulist road map for dodging the apocalypse or both, "Pinocchio's Nose" is a book about surviving.
The hero, and narrator of his life as man of flesh and boy of wood, is failed author Jerome Copernicus Charyn, born like the real Jerome Charyn in 1937, and raised as a Polish-American Jew in the streets of crime-infested New York City, like so many of the real Charyn's heroes. Not quite like the real Charyn, whose 18th book this is, Copernicus Charyn sinks out of sight after producing one novel, "Blue Eyes Over Miami," and only after years of psychotic fugue (or fabulous escapades) produces (in 1993) an enormously successful children's book about Pinocchio's adventures as a sidekick of Benito Mussolini. "Pinocchio 1945," as far as its author is concerned, is an autobiography. We've been reading excerpts from it all along.
From the first moment he can remember, Copernicus has been in flight--from his mother and uncle who dominate his congested family and much of New York's underworld as well, from the women he pursues until they toss him over for one godfather or another, from his ludicrous failed career, from the turmoil of the century itself. In nothing is he the agent of his life, except through the scalded gaiety of his own creative perceptions, the clearest of which is of himself as a wooden boy with brightly painted, magically lachrymose eyes, immune, immortal, all-seeing--the perfect artist. So he makes up a world, or finds one. Garbed as Pinocchio, who can get his nose into anything and out again scot-free, he dives into the cool waters of the past.
But even the Italy of 1930 is haunted. Whales haunt him, half "Moby Dick," half Disney. Anyone who does not resemble his uncle seems to be his mother, who, as the good fairy, is a mistress of disguises. And his uncle is Mussolini. When the war breaks out, Pinocchio is trapped by his family loyalties into staying with the doomed dictator, until they are all killed, and he awakens, in 1993, suddenly famous, bewildered, still incapable of living the life he can see so clearly with his glittering artist's eyes.
In a long coda, Copernicus finally ends up in a pixilated independent Texas much like the promised land of "Going to Jerusalem" (1967), an earlier Charyn novel in which easterners head west. It is 2017, and the book comes to a steamy halt, its hero poised for flight, but magically still, in honor of the last page. Has the trip been worth the longueurs?
Full of felicities and earned insights, "Pinocchio's Nose" is at the same time an oddly slapdash and exiguous book to come from such an experienced major writer. Long sections, like those set in Mussolini's Italy, are terribly thin-blooded. Copernicus repeats himself with manic flair, but without remission--and grows just a bit tiresome. But the book is about how important things like art and life can be joined together in flight: it is about how to cope while remaining innocent, it is about how to avoid the corruptions of power. It is a brave novel, though a shrill one. And because the phrase applies to the book as well as to its hero, I'll repeat myself: "Pinocchio's Nose" is full of the gaiety of life in our times.