The Street Sweeper: A Novel by Elliot Perlman (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 640 pp)
Born to second-generation Jewish Australians of East European descent, Elliot Perlman studied at Monash University. While working as a judge’s associate, Perlman submitted a short story that eventually won The Age Short Story Award. Upon becoming a full-time writer, Perlman’s debut novel, Three Dollars, won The Age Book of the Year and the Betty Trask Prize. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.
History as the Spoils of War
History is written by the victor. When peace arrives and diktats emerge, the narrative that develops often becomes one sided. For this reason, we can never conclusively know history because our narratives carry bias. I vividly remember surprise upon hearing my high school physics teacher—born and raised in the southern region of the United States—indicating unease regarding Abraham Lincoln. Although my teacher affirmed the goodness of liberating slaves from the South, he rejected the notion that Lincoln was a great president.
In The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman somewhat unsuccessfully seeks to tell the story of the marginalized.
The Street Sweeper
Centering on two heterogeneous characters, The Street Sweeper explores both the holocaust and the civil rights movement. On one end, Perlman ponders the difficulties facing Lamont Williams, a poor, black ex-convict sweeping streets and taking out the trash at a Manhattan cancer center through a correctional pilot program. If Lamont lasts six months, he will earn full-time employment and the opportunity to focus his resources on finding his daughter, a metaphorical casualty of spending years in the joint. Would you want an infant to remain relationally connected with a prisoner?
Early during his probationary period, Lamont encounters a cancer-ridden holocaust survivor named Henryk Mandelbrot. Striking up a friendship, Henryk shares with Lamont the harrowing story of Auschwitz and his involvement in the Sonderkommando, a slave labor unit forced to work the gas chambers in the death camps.
At his core, Lamont is an innocent man. He earned six years in prison for a crime his friends committed. Having agreed to give a ride, Lamont’s life took a turn for the worst when his friends, unbeknownst to him, held up a convenience store. Describing Lamont’s obliviousness as a personality trait consistent from childhood, Perlman writes,
“Lamont liked to read the magazines but Michael had always been more interested in the candy. Michael was the first to steal and it had been candy, Now and Laters and Hershey bars, he’d stolen. Lamont had his head buried in a magazine and hadn’t known what Michael was doing until they’d left the store” (67).
On the other end of the character spectrum, Perlman contemplates the civil rights movement and the holocaust through the lens of a Columbia historian named Adam Zignelik. The son of a prominent Jewish lawyer who contributed to the legislation that paved the way for the civil rights movement, Adam gained scholarly acclaim for a book praising the role of lawyers in civil rights.
“But worrying if [Adam] would ever have another sufficiently good idea was now a luxury he could no longer afford because it wasn’t enough to have a good idea one day. It probably wasn’t enough to have one even now. He really needed to have had one before now because, having spent five years at Columbia with only one book to show for it, an untenured academic seeking tenure was in very big trouble” (52).
Desperately in need of an idea and with his job on the line, Adam inspects a lead from a close friend regarding the potential link between black World War II soldiers and the liberation of concentration camps. If the link exists, it’s possible that World War II could function as a harbinger that provided the necessary strength for returning African-American troops to stand up for civil rights.
During Adam’s search, he uncovers original wire recordings of displaced persons—the title before holocaust survivor—created by a Chicago psychologist, Henry Border. With the wire recordings unveiling potentially the earliest historical record of the holocaust, Adam’s research begins to shift toward these stories. In learning more about the psychologist that traveled to Europe in the summer of 1946, Adam draws nearer to Henryk Mandelbrot and Lamont Williams.
For the most part, Perlman’s prose is engaging and at times masterful. Especially in the early stages of The Street Sweeper, I marveled at Perlman’s ability to link stories and to write poetic sentences. But as the novel developed, I found certain holes difficult to overcome.
First and most worrisome, Perlman sets the current events in this novel in a somewhat parallel state where Columbia University is willing to host Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and race relations are tense.
“The day before, someone had left a noose hanging on the door of a black professor from Columbia University’s Teachers College. The professor, a woman who hailed from a disadvantaged southern background, now a professor of psychology and education, was known for her particular interest in the psychological effects of racism on victims. Now she was a victim of it herself” (411).
|Lithograph by holocaust survivor Leo Haas|
Yet descriptions such as this one refuse to probe deeper, existing as a hanging thread. Despite heartbreaking explanations of the holocaust and the civil rights movements, Perlman refuses to expand on these imagined current issues. To a certain extent, Perlman’s densely packed narrative provides little space to expand on these complicated parallel issues. In my mind, the novel would have been better served without complicated current events.
Additionally, Perlman’s race discussion teeters between relevant and dangerous. A white Australian of Jewish descent, Perlman’s depictions of the African-American condition could easily be mistranslated. Interestingly, Perlman admits the danger in the acknowledgement section of the novel confessing that any description of another race inherits risk although he intends not to offend.
What Is Life if We Can’t Remember?
Nevertheless, The Street Sweeper portrays some compelling characters. The reader wants Lamont and Adam to find success in their endeavors and such a position is the first order business of a good story. The Street Sweeper asks us to remember people when we consider history. Certainly, events exist on an institutional level, but we should always remember that history happens to people.
“Lamont Williams was desperate for people to remember other people. If they didn’t, what did anything mean, what had anything been for” (553)?
Despite certain reservations, The Street Sweeper is an entertaining and enveloping read. If you are interested in historical fiction and willing to read about heartbreaking topics, The Street Sweeper is for you.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5