Yoram Kaniuk.(Iris Nesher)
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Bohemian Rhapsody

In the autobiographical novel Life on Sandpaper, Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk revisits the time he spent living among the artists and musicians of New York in the 1950s

Sam Munson
June 16, 2011
Yoram Kaniuk.(Iris Nesher)

The Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk is not as well known as he deserves to be in America. This may be due to the fact that other Israeli writers—most notably Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman—command enough of America’s literary attention to deprive their colleagues of it; it may be a simple vagary of taste. Whatever its cause, it is undeserved. Especially in the case of Life on Sandpaper(Dalkey Archive, $15.95), Kaniuk’s highly autobiographical (he shares a first and last name with the narrator) recounting of a strange, marvel-filled, and rootless time in his life—the 12-odd years he spent crisscrossing the United States between the end of the Israeli War of Independence and his return to the fledgling state in the early 1960s.

Life on Sandpaper is, unlike many efforts in this field, much more than mere recollection: punishingly alive, sinuously structured, teeming with vivid incident and precise detail, and almost incantatory in its headlong, roiling, and uninterrupted movement forward into an uncertain and endlessly seductive future. (This in itself should resonate with any American seeker after intellectual glory.) The novel fairly resounds with the still-extant sense of unlimited potential that filled America even in the 1950’s, and Yoram’s travels do not follow any apparent plan, other than an unspoken commitment to experience for its own sake. We follow him from New York to Paris to Las Vegas to the American southwest to Hollywood and thence, once more, to Manhattan, as he marries a dancer (which does not stop him from bedding countless other women) and produces paintings (by his own late-in-the-book admission, works of indifferent quality). He hobnobs with Charlie Parker and other titans of the postwar bebop scene and attempts to beat the house at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas. He works as a private tutor for Lionel Abel’s daughter. He creates spec scripts for legendary director Lewis Milestone and lunches with William Saroyan (near the end of his life when Yoram encounters him, and a Dostoevskian shipwreck of a man). He manages—through sheer chutzpah—to publish a book in English with an American house.

A life, in short, to be envied by any would-be artist, littered as it is with offhand accomplishments and the names of the famous. Yet through all his peregrinations, his civilian friends—so to speak—loom as large if not larger than the above-mentioned enduring ghosts of American culture: Avi Shoes, an eccentric business titan, with a fortune founded on patent laces; Mira, the near-sociopathic and brilliant daughter of a Russian chemist; Gandy, another painter and untethered bohemian; Oved, Yoram’s road-trip companion and would-be professional gambler. These men and women leave and enter Yoram’s life with circular unpredictability—in itself a testament either to Kaniuk’s scrupulous memory or his writerly skill in imitating so precisely the fluid dynamics of life off the page. The book’s acute prose gives ample cause to think it skill, rather than an effort of recollection. Writing of a female acquaintance’s attempted suicide, Kaniuk offers the following: “I put my head in the oven, took my head out for a moment to check if the windows were closed, and I saw light coming through the window and shining on a box of Quaker Oats cookies on the shelf over the oven. It seemed a shame not to eat the cookies, so I missed my chance of dying with dignity.” Quaker Oats and near-suicide by gas, hummus entrepreneurship and highline publishing: This is Yoram’s America. Such bleakly hilarious turbulence mirrors the larger turbulence of its temporal background. Indeed, young Yoram is as restless as the two societies he straddles: opulent-squalid New York and still-existentially-threatened Israel.

Kaniuk avoids, however, any overt attempts at sermonizing on this connection. So what, then, is Life on Sandpaper about, beyond the pleasure- and grief-rich past of a talented writer? A long, utterly corrosive speech made by his soon-to-be-ex wife may well provide a clue: “Each day is the last. Tomorrow you’re always going to die. The day after tomorrow there’ll be a funeral and I’ll be sorry I didn’t come see you sooner. … Have you ever noticed that you brag about having been a soldier, but never about your paintings?” Another comes from one of the book’s final set pieces, which takes place in a high-class whorehouse on the Upper East Side where Yoram works painting walls (not portraits, his métier) for the dementedly brilliant proprietor. And this is, in the end, what Kaniuk’s multifarious, propulsive novel is “about”: Yoram’s growing disillusion. With painting, with the lackey’s culture surrounding it (of which he, admittedly, is a part), and with, it is implied, America.

This forms the main thematic undercurrent of Life on Sandpaper; it culminates in his abandonment of art for literature and of America for Israel. Yoram, to be sure, does not abandon the work of creation—he publishes a first novel near the book’s end, and his creator has produced more than 20 books of fiction, essays, and children’s literature. But to admit, and frankly, one’s own mediocrity in one’s own first and most beloved art—this defies literary convention. (As does the reproach, implied in this disillusion, directed toward aesthetic fakery and the fetishization of youth and its sufferings.) The monstrous Saroyan, the paint job in the bordello, and Yoram’s own return to Israel—what do all these point to if not such a rejection? The book’s final sentences provide a powerful antidote to autobiographical kitsch: At a café in Tel Aviv, shortly after Yoram’s arrival in Israel, a man stands up and asks Yoram if he is, in fact, the author Yoram Kaniuk. “I said yes,” Yoram replies, “and he said in Yiddish-accented English: I’ve read your book. In English. A very bad book. I looked at him for a long moment and understood I’d come home.”

Sam Munson is author of the novel The November Criminals, which is now out in paperback.