Life on Sandpaper

With a title like Life on Sandpaper, you know the book is meant to be rough. And so it is—the Israeli painter/writer Yoram Kaniuk's bumpy, bristly account of his multiyear spree in Greenwich Village after being wounded in the 1948 War of Independence. Nothing is polished—not the descriptions, not the dialogue, not the action. It's life left in a natural state with all its scraggy joy intact.


What a life it is. These were the glory years of New York's bohemian scene: abstract expressionism, improvisational jazz, beat poetry sung on the streets in a bawdy, feverish mix. It was the era when sentimental gangsters wept at the music in nightclubs, when if you had the kind of moxie Mr. Kaniuk apparently had, you could score a dance with Ginger Rogers by pretending to be a Soviet spy. A parade of drugged-out angels and talented grotesques lurch through in a glorious, messy, Fellini-esque sprawl.


Wise was the editor who didn't try to impose gloss on the book's spontaneous, splintery disorder. Roughness can be a virtue when describing larger-than-life characters like Frank Sinatra down on his luck and "singing like cowboys fight in the movies" to get himself back in the game; James Dean with his "mischievous sense of shame"; the shrewd and bitter menace of William Saroyan. Gag writers for the Steve Allen show, the funniest show on TV at the time, turn out to be "five of the saddest people I'd ever met, their faces long and longer," sitting around a bottle of Four Roses bourbon laughing with their mouths closed. Pungent cameos abound: Jerome Robbins, James Agee, Leonard Bernstein, Billie Holiday, Peter Ustinov, Charlie Parker, Willem de Kooning, on and on.


Not many women's names in the list above? Fear not. Women abound in Kaniuk's account; in point of fact, just about every heterosexual encounter ends up in the sack. OK, one with a nun doesn't. And Lady Day wasn't crazy about his kissing. But Kaniuk finds succor of a sort by picking up widows in cemeteries, female drivers stuck in the mud and, oops, the nun is back 50 pages later, hot to trot.


Are we meant to believe every word? It hardly matters. Kaniuk calls his book an "autobiographical novel," and it feels curmudgeonly to quibble. In truth, the self-mythologizing gets a bit much sometimes: "I learned where to get cheap meatball-and-spaghetti meals in various, almost secret locations." Really, secret spaghetti joints? But he redeems himself with self-awareness of the most astringent kind. "My talent was meager," he says of his own painting, "I was only doing my best, but my best was shallow and conceited."


So what are we to do with this much unvarnished self-involvement? Surrender to it! If not every word is true, the one thing we can believe in is its energy: the sheer, driven thrust of it. And we should feel free to read it any which way we want. Since Kaniuk doesn't follow any rules, we don't have to, either. 417 pages contain no quotation marks, no chapter breaks, not even a fleck of white space to provide a breather. With that kind of anarchy, we can be anarchic ourselves, and pick it up or put it down anywhere. We can play as rough as he does!

Daniel Asa Rose is the author, most recently, of Larry's Kidney: Being the True Story of How I Found Myself in China With My Black-Sheep Cousin and His Mail-Order Bride, Skirting the Law to Get Him a Transplant ... and Save His Life, named one of the top books of the year by Publishers Weekly.

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