The Closer We Are To Dying
McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1999
Originally published in the Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
Joe Fiorito has been in the writing business for some time – early on, as a columnist with Hour magazine, where his food column eventually evolved into a published collection, Comfort Me With Apples. The recipient of rave reviews when it first appeared in 1994, its reissue, last spring, by McClelland and Stewart, also generated a significant buzz in reader/writer/reviewer circles. Another collection of columns, this time originally written for the Gazette, entitled Tango on the Main, garnered further positive reviews. Currently, he is a regular columnist for the National Post(1). His latest book, The Closer We Are to Dying is very personal family memoir inspired by the death of his father.
Dusty Fiorito, Joe’s father, is dying. There’s no hope. It’s definitely the end. Joe arrives from, in his own words, “far away,” “the life of an exile,” for the death watch. A tricky time, a complicated situation for anyone but exponentially compounded when a lifetime of ambiguity and conflict stands between the two, when the son can pronounce, in that tough, stubborn language of denial, “There was no need to grieve; he was about to die. I wanted to watch. I wouldn’t have saved him if I could. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” These words, like his relationship with his father, are fraught with ambiguity, with subtext, with conflict and contradiction.
No spoiled mid-lifer entranced by the glamour of victimhood, Joe has legitimate issues – of the near murder of his mother, of violence, beatings, drunkenness, irresponsibility and selfishness, wasted talent and opportunity, a childhood of uncertainty lived in the shadow of his father’s mercurial and precarious temperament. “He was,” says Joe “capable of anything, at any time, for any reason.” But also, in the light of his father’s love, and charm, and grinding hard work. “I knew he loved me,” Joe also says. “I didn’t doubt it. I didn’t trust it. But I knew it.” His is not a tidy dilemma, with easy answers, or easy villains. It’s messy and complicated — just like life.
Joe volunteers for the “graveyard shift” when the family is organizing the death watch and for the next three weeks spends his nights beside his father’s hospital bed attempting, despite his claim he’d done it long ago, to come to terms with the man dying before him. Through family stories, either coaxed from his father, or remembered, the panorama of Dusty’s life is laid bare. Joe alternates continuously between compassion and contempt. The reader is presented with the myriad complexities of Dusty’s existence — the pain of an Italian immigrant experience, the scars left by past generations, his love of music, his beguiling way with a story, his peasant wiliness and his peasant ignorance, the tragedy of his war experiences and his random acts of cruelty and tenderness, the lives of his brothers, father, uncles. In the context of Dusty’s own life, how much of him can be explained, forgiven, accepted? How much is unforgivable, innate? Who should Joe believe was real – the person who very nearly strangled his mother and beat his kids, or the man who sat up late at night cradling a son with whooping cough? It’s a tough job, to sum up a man, when his light and dark sides seem so irreconcilable.
Still, despite his occasionally shocking denouncements of his father, its an act of considerable devotion on Joe’s part to spend twenty or so nights rehearsing the old stories, trying to get his picture of his father right, to preserve his father’s memory honestly, to disentangle his understanding of the man from the resentments of a son, to see it through to the end. Tellingly, one of the things that Joe most admires about his father, is his ability to repeat a story innumerable times, without altering or warping it in any way. Soon the idea of Dusty will be entirely shaped by those who remember, and Joe desperately wants to be an accurate witness. It is this struggle for fairness and clarity which is the book’s most admirable and redeeming quality.
That being said, it can be a difficult book to read. Fiorito’s gaze is unblinking, his descriptions of the final days of a once proud and fastidious man, dying of cancer, uncompromising. Tough and uncomfortable questions are shoved at the reader without apology. The particular bleakness of Joe’s younger life, as a timid, bookish boy, in the midst of this flinty, rollicking, damaged immigrant family and tough working class neighbourhood, is, at times, heartbreaking. In one memorable incident, the youngest boy in the family, who has adopted a dilapidated plush elephant that was discarded by his older siblings, is forced by them (Joe included) to betray the much-loved toy in a sort of rite of manhood, and to participate in its ritual slaughter with kitchen knives. The image of the eviscerated plush elephant, “tufts of stuffing rising in the bright and sunny air,” is an eloquent illustration of the fate of anything soft or vulnerable, in that environment.
At other times, however, the family stories are filled with charm, sympathy, and humour. There were good times too. As Joe says, in a moment of compassion, “If Dusty feels young when he tells the old stories, if he feels like a boy when he remembers, then I will force him back to his youth. I will lead him, I will urge him, I will push him into the brightest corners of the oldest stories.”
The reader, struggling occasionally to reconcile the polarities, may feel the same conflict toward the book as Joe felt for his father, but the struggle is always worthwhile. It’s a brave and beautiful effort, an incantation and meditation on some of life’s most difficult questions and toughest truths. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
1. This review was written in 2001. Joe Fiorito currently writes for The Star. You can check out his recent writing at: