Life on Sandpaper

By Yoram Kaniuk

Dalkey Archive
February 2011
400 pages


Reviewed by Nathan Huffstutter


From the grim of addiction to the worse of family, when certain demons take root, the only recourse is often geographic. Exile. In 1950, after serving in an elite unit of the Israeli army, Hebrew author Yoram Kaniuk left the state he'd fought to establish: "There had been a war and I was wounded. When I got back I was remote and detached from everything, didn't speak for days and would draw on the walls because I'd killed people before I'd kissed a girl."

Bouncing from Israel to Paris to New York, Kaniuk landed in Greenwich Village and immersed himself in painting and bohemia. Throughout its opening episodes of disengagement, poverty, and art, Life On Sandpaper calls to mind Tropic Of Cancer: "We are all alone here and we are dead." Yet while both authors abandoned their makings to make anew, their exile narratives soon diverge; where Henry Miller fled to embrace the uglier depths of his nature, Yoram Kaniuk fled to escape them. And in this escape, what Kaniuk finds is not so much himself but an entire city, a decade, an era of larger-than-life characters he conducts with a well-synced trio of sensibilities: the painter's eye, the jazz afficionado's ear, and the storyteller's tongue.

Oh, and what a tongue. 400+ pages, no chapters, no line breaks, barely a pause for breath. The giddyup of Kuniak's prose has elsewhere been mislabeled "stream of conscious," but rather than mimic the jumps and leaps of the active mind, Kaniuk captures the jumps and leaps of hot jazz, the hard bop that no less than Bird defines for us as "Rhythm. Rhythm. Rhythm. Syncopation, something banal, some preplanned improvisation and phrasing, and most important, timing and timing and timing."

Composed of free-associative episodes, the (loosely?) autobiographical novel scales the grandest storytelling traditions, from tangled love triangles to set-'em-up, knock-'em-down jokery, from haunted folk-tales to Seussian hyperbole, from idolatrous star-gazing to sentences that would stop you dead in your tracks, if only you had a moment to spare. Timing and timing and timing, unified in large part by the celebrated company Kaniuk manages to keep. Quoting Aristotle, an author's note allows that the role of the poet is not to relate precisely what happened but perhaps what may have happened, and to hear Kaniuk tell it, he rubbed elbows with Charlie Parker, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Stanley Kubrick, offered career advice to William De Kooning and took same from James Jones, kissed Billie Holiday and crashed a luau where the guest of honor, Tennessee Williams, is ceremoniously thrown into the pool. The notable names are too many to list and rigorous fact-checking would entirely miss the point. Kaniuk's eye for portraiture is penetrating and vital, his renderings reminiscent of Dos Passos and the fine-lined sketches of Hearst, Ford, Veblen, and other era-defining figures in the "U.S.A." trilogy.

Sharing a table with James Agee at the corner drugstore, Kaniuk details how the famed author would "…say things that weren't always connected to each other and then would laugh at what he'd said, get up and hop around the drugstore on one leg, describing America as Rome in decline." Watching a torrid jam session between Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Max Roach, and Ben Webster, Kaniuk observes how the players

…wanted to beat the others but also to lose the battle. Bird suddenly seemed to move apart from them, everything was forgotten, he hated everyone and their mothers too and he played a long solo until Ben and Miles laid down their musical weapons and seemed astounded and embarrassed and went over to kiss Bird but he pushed them away and went out in tears. 

From its beginnings as an exile story, Life On Sandpaper shifts smoothly into a witness story, utilizing Kaniuk's fresh-eyed "other-ness" in combination with his unique ability to blend: though written in Hebrew, his younger self is completely at ease with English; though flashing the talent to earn a place in the crowd, he never flexes the ambition to separate from it; though presenting himself as the loneliest of souls, he engages in an endless string of affairs and surrounds himself with constant company.

"I was in the lives of all these people by mistake," Kaniuk concedes, which is tempting to read as "by coincidence," but the "mistake" resonates at a level much deeper than pure chance. Within this collection of lively personalities, Kaniuk had allowed himself to settle for simply passing through. This mode of being proves unsustainable, and at a decisive moment, Kaniuk finally thrashes out, physically scuffling with a dismissive, flippant scenester during a screening of All Quiet On the Western Front. Too assimilated for mere exile, too passionate to go on as a witness, Kaniuk ultimately pivots the search onto his own self. This shift, however, doesn't go quite as smoothly. Oved, a wandering, Jewish Neal Cassady, recruits Kaniuk for country-crossing road trips, but these expeditions add miles in place of answers. As the distance and the affairs pile up, his rocky marriage to a Broadway dancer crumbles and she eviscerates him in a pitiless, George and Martha exchange. Soon after, no less than Miles Davis rips into him: "Why did I forget you? Because you are easy to forget."

The confrontation with Miles ignites amid the celebration of a commissioned work: Kaniuk has just completed a mural of gilded angels on the bedroom wall of a high-priced call-girl, and after The Prince of Darkness spews his diatribe, Kaniuk comes to a crucial realization: "Each and every one of my paintings could have been different, and a work of art is measured as it is: it's a work of art because it can't be other than it is."

Abandoning his paints, Kaniuk launches a sequence of riotously ill-fated entrepreneurial enterprises before shifting his energies toward the craft of writing. Turns out, he has a gift for it. And after page upon page of rhythmic, nonstop verbiage, Kaniuk sets Life On Sandpaper's final vignette in a restaurant with the chic conceit of silence. No talking, the guests and servers are allowed blackboards for necessity but are otherwise commanded to "make your silence the most intricate conversation possible." Kaniuk soaks in an amazed silence, soaks in the dining room's illusive light, soaks in the broad, serene views of the city that made him part when he was less than whole. Having found both his voice and its opposite, after this intricate, silent conversation, Kaniuk then returns home.