Toronto writer and Star columnist Joe Fiorito was recently awarded the 2011 Gordon Bell Journalism Award by Addictions Ontario for his continued journalistic advocacy for the mentally ill. This is just the latest honour in a long career in journalism, a career characterized by a social conscience, civic mindedness, and championship of the underdog. As his columns reveal, he is a scrappy defender of the immigrant, the disabled and the homeless, who insists on speaking truth to power.
he is the author of the national best-seller, The Closer We Are To Dying, a family memoir praised by no less than Guy Vanderhaege as one of the most significant Canadian memoirs of the last fifty years or so,
he is author of the award winning novel The Song Beneath The Ice, amongst other successful works, including his breakout book, Comfort Me With Apples (1994) and a collection of columns written for the Montreal Gazette, Tango on the Main (1996)
he’s coming to Minden, Ontario on Monday, September 12, 2011 as part of the RD Lawrence Literary Festival!
Evening begins at 7:00 pm.
Tickets are $15 and available by calling 705-286-2298 or email: email@example.com.
In honour of the event, here’s a mini-retrospective of reviews of Joe’s work featured on Kerry On Can Lit in the past.
Fiorito, Joe: The Closer We Are To Dying
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:
Fiorito, Joe: The Song Beneath the Ice
The Song Beneath The Ice
McClelland & Stewart, 2002
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Like its title, like its principal protagonist, and very much like its informing spirit, Glenn Gould, Toronto writer Joe Fiorito’s new book, The Song Beneath the Ice, remains, even after close acquaintance, something of an enigma.
The story is built upon an intriguing premise. Dominic Amoruso, a virtuoso classical pianist from Toronto, a performer noted for his fearless sang froid and believed by many in the Canadian music world to be the next great one, after Gould, stops playing abruptly in the middle of a performance, walks off the stage and disappears. Disappears completely, that is – without explanation or communication. No one knows if he’s alive or dead. Assumptions are made, speculations indulged in, conclusions drawn – stage fright, a breakdown, the instabilities of the artistic temperament, genius and madness, etc. etc. – and the music world turns back to its quotidian concerns.
Nearly a year later, however, Joe Serafino, an investigative journalist and Dominic’s friend since childhood, receives a mysterious package in the mail, postmarked in Wolf Cove, North West Territories, full of audio tapes, not of piano music, but of conversations, street noise, the sounds of daily living — which Dominic has recorded, and an accompanying set of notebooks which chronicle the time leading up to the pianist’s abrupt departure, and his experiences since. Much to Joe’s frustration, however, there appears to be nothing else — no indication of his friend’s current whereabouts or condition, nor any guidance as to what use he is to make of the package contents. Uncertain that Dominic is still alive, or who, exactly, sent the package, and hoping the key to his friend’s strange behaviour and mysterious disappearance may be found within the tapes themselves, Serafino decides to launch his own investigation beginning with their transcription. What results, then, is a reconstruction, in quite intimate detail, of Dominic Amoruso’s recent history, providing the reader with a voyeuristic window into the complex existence of a musical genius who has reached a crisis in his artistic life.
It’s a crisis which may have been shared, at least in certain of its aspects, by Amoruso’s alter ego and musical nemesis, Glenn Gould who also orchestrated a much lamented retreat from the concert stage. As any classical pianist in Toronto must be, Amoruso is dogged by Gould’s legacy, but despite a professed irritation with the Gould phenomenon, Mr. Amoruso shares a number of similarities with his famously neurotic predecessor. Certainly one is meant to draw parallels between the two – Dominic lives in the same Toronto neighbourhood as Gould did, and, like Gould, has hypochondriac tendencies, an aversion to being touched, insomnia, a fascination with pharmaceuticals and a penchant for self-medication. Gould had Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Amoruso has Musorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition – music upon which their careers were built. Both had a fascination with, and eventually sought refuge in, the North. While Gould’s withdrawal into the recording studio was, purportedly, the result of a growing obsession with the idea of creating a “perfect” performance, Amoruso’s breakdown (and as Serafino makes his way through the tapes and diaries, it becomes increasingly clear that it was a breakdown) seems to have arisen from a profound disintegration of meaning in his art and thus his life.
Although apparently maintaining a calm and normal exterior, we learn that prior to his disappearance Dominic was experiencing a rapid deterioration in both his mental and physical health. Beset by increasingly vicious migraines, self-medicating to an abusive degree, distraught over a girlfriend’s callous use of abortion as a method of birth control, worried about the possibility of losing his unique gift (in particular, the synesthesia which allowed him to perceive sound as colour) and disenchanted with the politics and limitations of performance, Dominic finds himself in a crisis of faith, harbouring serious questions about the validity and meaning of his art. From a blue-collar family, he retains a working class skepticism about the rarified world (a world in which it seems artifice is esteemed, and life is disposable) into which his gift has carried him, and its ultimate value. He is, his friend notes, “a classical pianist with a working class stance on the subject of culture.” It takes another death, in the distant north, and the deeply human response that it evokes in the people of Wolf Cove, to allow him to reconnect his art to life.
Returning to our initial comment, the ice of the title proves to be a elusive and complicated image. In one light, it can be seen to represent the interface between the public and private, the set of social conventions which separate the two, upon which the framework of society rests, but beneath which, the private person exists – part of the structure, for example, which allowed Dominic to maintain an exterior which belied his interior turmoil up until the point of collapse. As such, it stands in opposition to art, which seeks a direct communication between the public and private. For Dominic, a virtuoso who has grown weary of simply playing brilliantly, who is looking for a greater meaning for his gift, it is a barrier which must be breached. Significantly, Dominic’s long road back to public life begins during spring breakup, as the ice goes out, in the tiny northern community of Wolf Cove.
The book begins as a fascinating mystery, kept moving along smartly by Fiorito’s terse and economical writing style. It develops, however, into something more – a complex and absorbing meditation on some of the biggest questions that confront a serious artist. Dominic’s struggle can be seen as a search for a unifying theory, of sorts, for music, and, in a broader sense, for art — the concept, the equation, the guiding principle which can reconcile high art and everyday life. Dense with imagery and philosophical, literary and musical references, it does not, however, offer any easy solutions. Like any good enigma, it raises more questions than it answers. My one back-handed complaint is that the story begins as such a compelling mystery, that, as a reader (led astray, perhaps, by misplaced genre expectations) I became so absorbed in interpreting the text as “evidence,” that I was, initially, blinded to its broader implications, and the deeper arguments being developed — a classic case of losing the forest in the trees.
Ultimately, The Song Beneath the Ice is an exploration of what it means to have an extraordinary gift, and, perhaps, to lose it, the obligations of talent, the relationship between virtuosity and eccentricity, the tension between the public and the private, and the true connection between life and art. Like Gould, Dominic’s retreat from the concert stage carried him north. Unlike Gould, however, the north did not, for him, represent a withdrawal into solitude, but becomes, rather, a place of renewal. Because of this, the book ends on a note of tremendous anticipation – when we leave Dominic Amoruso, he is on his way back, confident that he has found a meaningful way, both as a performer and a composer, to continue to communicate through his art. What sounds await his audience? What, one is compelled to wonder, might have transpired had the same been true for Gould? What, then, might the world have heard?