A former CBC-er wrote a novel about a classical musician’s escape to Iqaluit

In Joe Fiorito’s 2002 novel, The Song Beneath the Ice, a concert pianist runs away from the Toronto cultural scene and into the arms of a not-even-thinly disguised Bryan Pearson, one of Iqaluit’s most well-known real-life characters.

Even though I spent nine years in Iqaluit, many of those with the CBC, and have an express interest in fiction set in the North, I didn’t hear about this book until a friend of mine in Yellowknife mentioned it last year.

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Fiorito spent five years managing the CBC in Iqaluit in the late ‘70s and/or 1980s. He later wrote a memoir called The Closer we are to Dying that hit international bestseller status and he ended up as a columnist with the Toronto Star until 2016. 

The Song Beneath the Ice, Fiorito’s first novel, tells the story of Dominic Amoruso, who disappears during a performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The story is narrated by Amoruso’s friend, a freelance reporter who studies clues found in a package the great musician mails from a mysterious place called Wolf Cove, Northwest Territories.

The clues consist of 52 notebooks and 32 cassettes and there’s a lot of metafiction going on as our trusty narrator transcribes and comments on the material. The first three quarters of the book are spent in this way. 

We finally catch up with Amoruso on page 232 when he find himself, still wearing his tux, “royally fucked” (i.e. with no any idea how to call a cab or whether there even are any) in the Iqaluit airport. A few days later, he arrives in Pearson’s clothing store. 

“A small grey man with curly hair, mutton-chop whiskers, and a thin and downturned mouth looked at me askance and, antsy, asked ‘Who in bloody hell are you?’” 

If you don’t know Bryan Pearson, well, you probably haven’t been to Iqaluit. 

Fiorito’s version is named Arthur Parsons and runs a store called Northern Ventures (in real life and, hilariously, by accident on page 263, the store was actually called Arctic Ventures), but otherwise, the Pearson character is not even thinly disguised. 

“Parsons, in summary: left Liverpool as a boy, shipped out with the merchant marine, got a job on a supply boat to the Arctic, jumped ship here — he has no idea why except he thought it was a good idea at the time took odd jobs, worked hard, saved his money, now owns half a dozen properties including an office building, a coffee shop, and Northern Ventures; was elected mayor two years ago.”

More or less, yes (Pearson died of cancer in 2016; I wrote an obit for CBC at the time). 

We get a lot more Pearson in this book. “Parsons lords it over this town like a feudal prince. He lives in a rather large house a mile or so on the outskirts.” True.

Inside the house, we learn he keeps— and I had always wanted to know more about this famous factoid  — “a sketch of a woman examining the hair between her legs. I peered at her — a Picasso, real by the look of it — and professed surprise; he rolled his eyes and asked me if I liked that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure if he meant Picasso or women. The drawing is worth a small fortune but he says no one would steal it because no one knows or cares about Picasso in this godforsaken place.” 

We also get a glimpse of Pearson’s casual racism (still present, but out of style by the time I was in Iqaluit, 2004-2013, and I’m talking about Pearson specifically here): “These people would go nuts if they had credit cards. They do not understand the concept of the timely payment of bills”; and his delight in his own importance: “If you want your whereabouts to remain secret for more than the time it takes the Mounties to make a phone call, then just ask me. I’ll call the sergeant. I’ll have a word with the airline people. I know the president. He used to work for me.” 

This is what I love about fiction. The way it captures a time and place as it really is, sometimes inadvertently.

Pearson/Parsons serves the plot by pointing Amoruso towards a piano at the high school, giving him a job, and securing him an apartment in white row (“‘White row housing? Row housing for whites?’ ‘Ach, that’s a good one.’”)

Fiorito describes Iqaluit as it may have looked in the late 1970s: “Between the town and the beach the Inuit workers and hunters live side by side with the town’s drunks and glue sniffers, the unemployed, the unemployable. They live in five-twelves — houses that are 20 ft. x 26 ft. and contain all the amenities, such as a bucket for an indoor toilet. Such as a space heater and a gas-canister stove. Such as windows covered in plastic. Drinking water, delivered weekly by the town. Some of the five-twelves hold families of eight. My piano studio is 424 square feet.”

The rest of his view is equally bleak, though not too bleak for the scoundrels from the South who make it home.

The point of all this, if there is one, comes rather eloquently in the very last few pages (I offer spoilers here; this book is not easy to find). “The idea of North is not an idea. It is real and it is in this room; in the tobacco sweat of men and the yeasty sweat of women; in the bad breath, the sealskin, and the farts; the smell of coffee from an urn and a bright pink note — Petaloosie is here, his cherry cough drops — also in the smell of milk dripping from bottles and leaking from teats onto clothes; and above it all I smell it in the ammonia urine of babies. Oddly, it is not unpleasant.”

Needless to say, Amoruso manages to find himself through this experience, with the help of that extra piano, a death, some sex and a kind of musical exorcism. 

This book was well-reviewed in 2002. “A stunning first novel,” said the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. “The prose is nothing short of fantastic,” said the Edmonton Journal. 

The Globe and Mail (these are all on the back of the book’s cover) said: “Fiorito expertly captures the cultural ferment of 1990s Toronto.”

I missed most that cultural stuff, though I did appreciate mention of Pho Hung, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant on Spadina, and the many, many scenes set in Fran’s Diners.

The friend who recommended this book later told me she loved it because of the song it revolves around (she had never been to Iqaluit). I missed most of that too. Turns out it’s a piano suite called Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, a boozy Russian composer best known for the opera, Boris Godunov. I love it when writers work out their obsessions in novels, but I’m afraid I don’t share this particular one.

All that to say there’s kind of a split focus here. 

But if you want to see part of the North refracted in fiction, well, here you go. 

The Song Beneath the Ice
By Joe Fiorito
McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 2002
349 pages

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