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Wooden Nickels for Pinocchio : PINOCCHIO IN VENICE, By Robert Coover (Linden Press/Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 323 pp.)

January 27, 1991|RICHARD EDER

In "Pinocchio in Venice," Collodi's boy/puppet has become an elderly art-critic/puppet, winner of two Nobel Prizes in literature. Arriving in Venice at Carnival, he undergoes a series of misadventures roughly equivalent to those of his early days, though far raunchier. They are told in a learnedly witty logorrhea that knocks them askew; like reciting "Ode to a Nightingale" in stage-German.

It is "Pinocchio" and it is utterly different: a post-structuralist, litcrit demonstration that the language of a narrative does not convey the narrative but the narrator. Robert Coover, in this case.

Coover is not a bad subject; he is fierce and funny, campy at times, and Rabelaisian at others. When you get through the bramble hedges of his wordplay and reality-play, you find a winning sympathy for his stick-figure pedant, along with a meditation on humanity vs. art. As old Pinocchio thrashes once again in his lifelong (puppet-long?) agony over whether to be human flesh or wooden artifice. Coover's book teeters uneasily between the same choices.

In the children's classic, Pinocchio finally overcame his flaming temper, his incurable greed and his helpless acquiescence to every temptation. After many slips, he shed his puppet condition and dedicated himself to study and hard work, under the aegis of the Blue Fairy or Fairy Godmother.

A happy ending? Yes, if you are a 19th-Century Italian fabulist. No, if you are a late-20th-Century avant-garde ironist. Coover's aged Pinocchio obeyed his godmother so thoroughly that he became a world-renowned scholar. And yet, stumbling through the Venice railroad station with luggage, a word processor and no hotel reservations, he is as irascible, unappeased, greedy and naive as ever.

A decrepit porter takes him in tow. He leads him on a tortuous route through the empty midnight city, crossing and recrossing the same bridge--this is normal in Venice, the porter explains--and ends up at a deserted palazzo that he swears is a hotel run by a friend.

Porter and a friend--blind and one-armed--take the old visitor to a tavern where, they assure him, everything is on the house. They eat and drink tremendously, stick him with the bill, and abandon him. When he eventually struggles back to the "hotel" through a heavy fog, he finds it is empty and his luggage is gone. The two swindlers, of course, are the Fox and the Cat, grown old and mangy.

Pinocchio collapses in despair and humiliation, increased by a loss of control of his sphincter. Picked up by the police, who abuse him, he is rescued and cleaned up by Alidoro and Melampetta, the two giant mastiffs he once befriended, now as old and decrepit as he is.

He falls into a canal, is rescued and bilked once more by the Fox, this time masquerading as a gondolier. He is thrown into a trash can and mocked by a troupe of performing puppets until they recognize him as their own comrade, and invite him to join their performance of "When You Wish Upon a Star." Coover shuffles his texts with deliberate glee.

Pinocchio is taken in hand by Eugenio, the schoolmate whose braining by a heavy mathematics book first launched Pinocchio on his sea of troubles. Eugenio had been another victim of the wicked coachman and master of Pleasure Island; but instead of being turned into a donkey, he became the coachman's sex partner and, eventually, his successor. He has turned Pleasure Island into a vast and noxious industrial park, and swindled his way into owning much of Venice. Now, after putting Pinocchio up in luxury, he swindles him as well.

The picaresque misadventures proliferate through all kinds of bawdy and phantasmagoric variations, and page after page of historical, philosophical and autobiographical self-searching. Pinocchio is in anguish. For one thing, he is turning back into wood, and unsound, splintery wood, at that. For another, he is trying to figure out the meaning of his life and troubles as man and as puppet.

He is obsessed above all with the mysterious, polymorphous figure who has ruled his life. In the original "Pinocchio," she was, whether as the dead child who became a spectral playmate or as the loving but reproachful Fairy Godmother, an unqualified angel. But to Coover's Pinocchio, she is passion, salvation and corruption all in one.

He recalls her, as dead child and as godmother, mingling pure love with the most squalid eroticism; and making use of his wooden parts--his nose, particularly--for sexual gratification. She reappears in Venice, this time as a voluptuous, blue-haired college student, cuddly and aloof at the same time.

He had owed his Nobel-laureated success to her insistence that he become human, with a human's dedication to work and achievement. Why, then, is he turning back into a puppet? Why do his fellow-puppets entreat him to join them?

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