The vacuum cleaner of love

Asthmatica

By Ibi Kaslik

A review of Asthmatica by Jon Paul Fiorentino

Published on April 1, 2005

Asthmatica
Jon Paul Fiorentino

Insomniac Press
$21.95
paper
149pp
1-894663-86-1

Talent, mixed with the right amount of dysfunction and self-awareness, can be a monstrous thing. Add a diabolic wit and irreverence and you have Jon Paul Fiorentino, whose first book of comedic short fiction is monstrously funny. Fiorentino is well aware of the effect his brand of lacerating wit may have on readers; he introduces Asthmatica thusly: “In these comedy bits, I am really making fun of myself, but, perhaps more importantly, I am really, really making fun of you.”

But unless the reader is a cross-dressing, wheezing neurotic, Fiorentino is mainly making fun of a specific type of young man. This primary target – the young, asthmatic, sex-crazed, bookish “Jonny” – finds himself in various compromising situations. In “Electrolux,” he attempts to establish a serious sexual relationship with a vacuum cleaner; in another story he tries to undermine his father’s abuse by offering up a box of his used belt straps; in “Sissy Fights” Jonny beats the crap out of the son of hockey star Anders Anderssen and, in two stories, he literally flees the scene when he is about to have sex with a real live girl. Effete and precocious, the young Jonny clings to an obsession with sports and totes his loser status proudly: “Asthmatica is the realm of the rash-worthy and the professional bowler. Asthmatica is your name on the softball team. Asthmatica is wheeze-karaoke…Asthmatica is home.” The postmodern Jonny is comfortable in this realm, where being heavily medicated and too smart for one’s own good is something to celebrate rather than spurn.

Utilizing Lacanian theory on self and sexuality, as well as peppering the book with just the right amount of self-conscious writerly authority, Asthmatica reads like the friendly confession of a lazy intellectual stand-up. At one point the author acknowledges the importance of a working knowledge of critical theory but admits that “it’s hard to read and gives me a headache.” Pulling a little sexual theorizing himself, Jonny realizes that what attracts him to the vacuum cleaner is its hybrid sexuality.

Aside from these warped insights, what’s interesting about Jonny’s misadventures is that they aren’t pitted against the jocks or “winners” as are most angst-ridden teen stories from suburbia. While his Bible-thumping family doesn’t quite “get” him, he doesn’t hate them; while he is ____________ (fill in blank with “epileptic,” “asthmatic,” “diabetic”), he has friends who make life almost tolerable. In some ways Asthmatica suggests that adolescence is one big mess for jocks, teen queens, asthmatics, and vacuum-cleaner humpers alike:

 

We were an amalgam of baby fat and crooked teeth. There were braces and retainers and mountainous blackheads swirling in the most intense, violent sessions of ball hockey every played.

 

Also highly worthy of mention are the pot shots Fiorentino takes at the Canadian literary scene. One section, titled “The Long Lists” – a reference to the kind of nonsensical Canadiana titles that instantly win prizes – needs no explanation. Here is a brief selection of this reviewer’s favourites:

 

Absence of Time’s Absence, Love’s Leak, When the Beans Spring Forth, The Reflecting Mirror, and The Tang of Sweet Nuts.

 

Like that list, Fiorentino’s book is here to remind the literati not to take themselves too seriously. This makes Fiorentino’s self-lacerating achievement all the more courageous and refreshing; he himself is well on his way to being considered a “serious” poet and may soon be part of the establishment he so adeptly satirizes. There is no comedy without honesty. More than anything, Asthmatica is a seamlessly funny, smart, naughty read, filled with irreverent insights exposing the dirty little secrets, shames, and triumphs of coming through adolescence – and the literary life – almost intact. mRb

Ibi Kaslik's debut novel "Skinny" was shortlisted for the 2004 Amazon.ca/books in Canada First Novel Award.

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