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The Color of the Air Scenes From the Life of an American Jew by John Sanford (Black Sparrow: $20, hardcover; $12.50, paperback; 350 pp.)

November 24, 1985|Elaine Kendall

The course was History of English Prose, Chaucer to Joyce; the final a matter of identifying the writer and his century by vocabulary, rhythm and sentence structure. There were about 30 writers in all, one to a page, the package well-shuffled; no dead giveaways. The styles were distinctive if not altogether unmistakable, shaped in each case by the response of the author to the central religious, political and social issues of his era; bonus points if you could spot the decades. Scriveners with nothing much to say and no particular way to say it didn't turn up centuries later in English 400. Our chaps were notable for form and content.

Contemporary American though he is, Sanford would be at home in that august company. Like his four volumes of American history, the autobiography is written as a series of compressed vignettes; few more than 1,000 words, others as short as 200. Just as his histories include occasional scenes from his own life to particularize the material, the autobiography employs the same device in reverse, using national events and characters to set a large context. "For the subject of this autobiography," Sanford says in a prefatory note, the 15 historical excerpts provide "the color of the air," the mold in which the man's mind is cast. Those he has chosen to punctuate his life are the ones that formed his convictions and supplied the themes of his novels.

Many, like Virginia Dare, the first English child born on American soil, he could have only heard about; the bare mysterious facts fueling his imagination, kindling the flame of curiosity that would burn for a lifetime. "He searched for some time, that grandfather of Virginia Dare, but of the 116 souls he had left behind on the dunes, he found no wind-grayed bone, no salt-faded rag, no scaled pot, no written word save the word CROATAN." Some seem quixotic choices; Elijah P. Lovejoy, an early abolitionist minister and printer murdered by the slave-holding citizens of St. Louis; the wandering artist Ralph A. Blakelock, "shy, tight-spun, a ten o'clock scholar, a lover of olive-green and lonely places, a visioner, a sleepwalker, a negative in a positive world." Others are conspicuously well known; public figures glimpsed in uncharacteristic moments.

The distinctive, elegiac style proves highly versatile, relaxing for humorous or personal incidents; tightening like a vise around crucial events and pivotal personalities. In addition to the brief portraits of the celebrated and the notorious there are national crises and watersheds; family and friends recalled and described, everything seen from an unexpected oblique angle, so even the familiar seems freshly invented. The method is metaphysical in its intensity, each image wrenching the imagination and forcing a new perspective upon the reader. The same literary system applies to Sanford's meticulous reconstruction of his own life from infancy to young manhood. Fragments, snapshots, scraps of conversation; sounds and sights are retrieved and restored before they're set into place in the collage.

In a small book of letters from the poet William Carlos Williams to Sanford, published last year, there's a section of sound advice to the young novelist. "A work of art is a small machine," Williams wrote. "Not a flick of grease too much; every part pared down to geared essentials. Beware," Williams added, "of lost motion in the parts." That lesson was learned early and thoroughly. A close reading of these vignettes will often reveal an internal rhyme or two, but even without those clues, the discipline of the poet emerges; nothing extraneous, the mechanism all but invisible. Given the finely tooled cogs and wheels, the reader can make his own connections.

"American" is the operative word in the subtitle; the autobiography of a man who grew up in this country and with this century, directed by everything he read, saw, remembered, felt and thought about our history. Individual as it is, Sanford's story is bound to produce shocks of recognition and identification throughout his generation. Like those stalwarts of English prose, so thoroughly engaged with the spirit and events of their time, Sanford is the rare voice that once heard, remains immediately recognizable.

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