PRINT April 1994


KEITH MAYERSON GETS JERKED around. Out of school and on his own, he finds himself the butt of irreconcilable demands—to remain true to himself and yet to conform, to challenge society yet simultaneously to beg its approval. He is unsure whether to explore or deny his most intimate desires. Keith would like to straighten out his life, but it’s a struggle—particularly because he’s not straight.

“Pinocchio the Big Fag” is Mayerson’s story, a suite of some 48 modestly scaled drawings and watercolors in which Mayerson restores to Walt Disney’s celluloid distillation of C. Collodi’s 19th-century teen saga the original’s more fitful fantasies, literally fleshing out much of its huffing erotic subtext. In Mayerson’s retelling, this fairy tale features more than one kind of fairy. A coming-out as well as coming-of-age tale, “Pinocchio the Big Fag” is a story of innocence affirmed through pleasure and of wickedness disguised as the prohibition of temptation.

Igniting interpretive chaos while maintaining a political edge, Mayerson’s characters allegorize the ecstasies and sorrows as well as the mindless frivolity official morality renders unfathomable. In his hands, “Pinocchio” proves too mischievous for its conventional narrative, supplying Mayerson with a chameleonlike cipher for myriad cultural associations and psychological projections. His Pinocchio is a hammered-together construct, resembling Disney’s wooden bambino in only one acetate painting, looking more often like a junior Timbertoe from Highlights for Children. Mostly, his depiction changes from artwork to artwork, touching on an array of picture-book styles, from expressionistic scrawl to elegantly languid line drawing. Indeed Mayerson only follows Collodi’s version of “Pinocchio” to play with its overabundance of suggestive plot twists. (In his hands, Pinocchio’s lynching at the hands of the Assassins turns into an opportunity for the little marionette to experiment with auto-erotic asphyxia.)

If Mayerson thus sinks one foot into the muck of tradition, he plants the other on the spotlit stage. Like its Disney counterpart, “Pinocchio the Big Fag” shares unlimited access to showbiz iconography. The Magic Kingdom invades the Old Country, turning its folklore into merchandise; Pinocchio the Box Office Hit mingles with Hollywood’s elite. Mayerson casts celebrities who bring to their roles some of the most deeply felt sexual anxieties roaming through the pop unconscious. John Wayne, as Geppetto, reprises his character in The Searchers, a single father who immaculately conceives a half-breed son; Jodie Foster stars as the Lovely Maiden with Azure Hair, a hip professor who promises Pinocchio self-realization through force-fed critical theory (“Shut up and drink!”); Sigmund Freud, Jean Genet, and Montgomery Clift all make cameo appearances. Far and away the most wished-upon star is Keanu Reaves, who’s given the part of Lampwick, “the laziest boy in school,” Pinoke’s fellow truant and travel/companion to Fun Island, “a wonderful place to be a boy/where everyone does everyone and no one’s out done.”

A dream of lived pleasure and its politics, “Pinocchio the Big Fag” doesn’t present a straight storyline so much as a maze of interconnecting passages. Some of its images are so hallucinatory they seem to speak directly to the id, some address worldly topics, while still others work on both levels at once. In one picture that Mayerson alters only slightly from Collodi’s book, three doctors solemnly stand by the bed of a stricken Pinocchio, whose puppet strings are now tethered to IV bags, and whose withered face and body are peppered with what look like KS lesions: “When the dead weep,” one of the doctors says in the caption, “it means they do not want to die.”

In Mayerson’s puppet theaters, not only are the dead brought to life, but the passions that beget life are taken to their limit, to some form of oblivion wrought either by or against the Law. Pricks in various guises parade through Mayerson’s imagery, introducing an equally strong sense of repression with their eroticism. If Geppetto himself doesn’t sport a big cock, by crafting Pinocchio he extends himself and his name, erecting a prize-winning boner. Pinocchio, on the other hand, may appear to be well endowed, but it’s his nose that grows long and stiff when he refuses to confess his sins to the authorities, just as it does when he finally goes down on a donkey-eared Keanu. In the end, “Pinocchio the Big Fag” happily inverts the Pygmalion myth lying underneath Collodi’s book. Mayerson’s Pinocchio fights for control of the sexuality constructed for him by his Creator, because at stake for the marionette is the chance to surrender control to his own desires.

Lane Relyea is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.