The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman’s latest novel, comes freighted with high expectations and a fanfare of publicity. This, it would appear, is a book to watch. Perlman has come a long way from his sombre though slight first book, Three Dollars, and his short-story collection The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, with tales that ultimately contained more pith than juice. His last novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, a bustling, ambitious affair, gave us seven different narrators offering seven takes on contemporary life. The Street Sweeper takes the breadth and scope of its predecessor, together with the keen-eyed social awareness of his earlier work, and multiplies it. The result is a riveting study of racial intolerance and its repercussions as experienced by characters from different generations and diverse ethnic backgrounds.
Perlman peoples his epic novel with a large and disparate cast. However, there are two significant strands in the novel and so two main leads. Lamont Williams, the eponymous street sweeper, has just been released from prison. Determined to wipe the slate clean, he begins his probationary period as a janitor at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and, between shifts, attempts to track down the daughter he hasn’t seen for years. Adam Zignelik is a history professor at Columbia University who loses his bid for tenure, splits with his girlfriend and then sinks into self-doubt. Though culturally dissimilar – Adam is Jewish and American-Australian, Lamont is African-American – both men are united in their status as undervalued, misunderstood cast-offs appealing for a second chance.
That break comes in the unlikely guise of history. Lamont befriends Henryk Mandelbrot, a dying patient at the hospital and, more importantly, an Auschwitz survivor. Mandelbrot gives him a menorah but also an account of his war years, entrusting both to Lamont and urging him to commit to memory every harrowing detail. “Tell everyone what happened here,” Mandelbrot recites. Adam’s stab at redemption comes when he discovers a cache of lost interviews with Holocaust survivors. Suddenly his apathy evaporates and he is given a shot in the arm to resuscitate his floundering career. As he listens to the recordings of what were then called “displaced persons”, the interviewer, one Henry Border, utters the line: “Who is going to stand in judgement over all of this and who is going to judge my work?”
This need to judge is crucial to the novel. In many ways it is expected – the author was formerly a lawyer in his hometown of Melbourne. But Perlman goes a step further and explores not only the ramifications of humankind’s compulsion to judge one another but also, more pertinently, to prejudge. For at the dark heart of The Street Sweeper we find an illuminating study of prejudice, specifically the two main strains that blighted the first half of the 20th century. Perlman ingeniously fuses anti-black racism with anti-Semitism. During a history lecture, Adam discusses the “parallels between the situation of blacks in the United States and the Jews in Germany”.
When out of his job and rudderless, a friend rescues him from the doldrums by asking him to research and prove the hushed-up fact that black US soldiers helped liberate Dachau – before being whitewashed out of history. Adam finds one former soldier who “risked his life in a segregated army fighting Nazism in Europe, came home to fight the civil rights battles we fought and now he just wants to be left alone. He can no longer bear the indignity of having to prove anything to anyone.”
Perlman informs us that the role of the historian is to build “a bridge into the unknown” and he excels when he moves from his characters’ private turmoil of the present to the global horrors of the past. His descriptions of life in the Jewish ghettoes and the shorter existence in the camps make for sober reading. Initially we may feel that this is familiar territory, but to render his scenes more “unknown” Perlman takes us down deeper tunnels that are so visceral they are practically unbearable. He has mastered the first rule of recreating the Holocaust in art: never be afraid of excess. Indeed, any attempt to downplay the gratuitous leads to charges of inauthenticity, and thus a dereliction of duty. Perlman avoids this by having Mandelbrot tell Lamont that he was a member of the Sonderkommando and so assigned with herding Jews into the gas chambers and then transferring the corpses to the crematoria. Mandelbrot doesn’t skimp on detail. Lamont, and the reader, have to learn so they don’t forget.
This is a dicey move for a writer. How to expatiate on history in a novel without eroding that medium of fiction in which you are supposed to be dealing? Unless your novel is counterfactual (think Robert Harris’ Fatherland) then you risk losing your reader with lectures on the past rather than progress in the present. Some dissenting voices took Perlman to task in Seven Types of Ambiguity for his relentless moralising. He skirts close to it in The Street Sweeper with the very nature of Adam’s work: lecturer. In one scene Adam lectures his students and, by extension, the reader. His friend William then lectures him. Much of this historical scene-setting and back-story, though fascinating, could have been telescoped. “‘You really should look this up,’” a mother scolds her child, but then proceeds to give her (and again, us) a lesson, complete with dates, on The Great Migration. In these sections action, or at least plot development, gives way to stasis.
And yet Perlman never ceases to be engaging. But his blurring of fact and fiction is at times too messy, with rigid chopping and changing taking priority over artful seamlessness. Also, for all his attention to facts and figures, he is prone to generalising, particularly with accents. Adam, we hear, is “the telegenic son of Jake with a Britishoid accent” – whatever that might be. Later, a man has “an accent coated in Europe”.
However, such criticisms pall into trivial infelicities when placed next to the rest of this fully functioning novel. Perlman shows he is completely in control when he brings his history full circle. At one juncture Adam is berated for not opposing the decision to allow the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fresh from his public Holocaust denials, to lecture at Columbia University. This could have been a clumsy tendentious trope after all those passages of vivid Auschwitz barbarity but Perlman pulls it off marvellously. His message is clear: history provides lessons for the present. It is a moral but it is subtly presented, not sermonised.
Perlman’s prose is robust enough to carry such a weighty tale to its satisfying conclusion when, at long last, Adam and Lamont get to meet. He is not a literary writer but he is a clever one, wonderfully adept at taking seemingly incongruent objects and ideas and either juxtaposing them or blending them into a harmonising whole. Lamont’s acquired menorah and a comb belonging to Adam’s ex and containing a few stray hairs, left behind for Adam to weep over – both objects in Perlman’s hands are dexterously fashioned into symbols; humdrum keepsakes transformed into valuable totems. And there is one intriguing subsection in which the same impatient mother tries to educate her child, this time with a copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Perlman regales us with sizeable quotes on pig-killing: we hear the agonised shrieks of hogs as they are chained up and slaughtered. It seems like a bizarre bedtime story, almost irrelevant; until we encounter those arresting later chapters, this time comprising only Perlman’s words, pages which reveal details of similar wholesale slaughter on an industrial scale.
In interview Perlman has called the Holocaust “the gold standard of human rights abuse”. The Street Sweeper reflects this with its many illuminating meditations on the power of memory and ordeals of history. Perlman balances the brutality with flashes of hope that linger just long enough to remind us that human warmth is out there if we care to look, or if we try harder. He conveys this with compassion, never stooping to sentimentality, and over pages of immensely readable writing. It is then, a book to watch.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.