Usually when I read a book that the book group is discussing later in the year I take copious notes as I read, but The Street Sweeper, Eliot Perlman’s latest novel had me so absorbed, I just didn’t want to stop reading. At 544 pages it’s a long book, but it held my attention throughout.
In a fractured world where people seem less and less connected to each other, Perlman’s story shows us that we can be drawn together by the networks of history and our common humanity. Indeed, despite the barriers of modern life, it may well be that we have more in common with the strangers that we brush up against than we suspect. And although the author builds his plot around the greatest crime of the 20th century – the Holocaust – and the most persistent social problem of America’s history – its pernicious racism – it is a profoundly optimistic work, celebrating compassion, courage and truth.
We live in an era when a member of the British Royal Family – the beneficiary of a good education and with any amount of advisors to guide him – thought it was funny to dress as a Nazi for a fancy dress party. Clearly it is important for generations far removed from the immediacy of the Holocaust to learn about it. But when you’ve read a fair few books about the Holocaust as I have, you could be forgiven for wondering how this complex and fraught topic might be explored in fiction. Perlman, however, has succeeded in writing a novel that tells what happened in a sensitive way for a new generation and with a different slant for those who already know about this unfathomable event. He tackles the issue of American racism against its African-Americans from a new angle too. He has framed his story around the research of a jaded professor so that he discovers long-lost recordings of Holocaust survivor stories while searching for evidence to prove a link between African-American liberators of Death Camps in Europe with the eventual birth of the civil rights movement. In this way, Perlman brings a fresh but respectful perspective to histories that should unite us all in revulsion for the evils of extreme racism.
With the perspicacious eye of an Outsider in New York, Perlman charts the course of an Invisible Man: an African-American wrongly convicted of armed robbery as he tries to rebuild his life without bitterness or recrimination. Lamont Williams has little in the way of resources except hope, and his challenge is to find his small daughter, lost to him because of his estranged girlfriend’s indifference. Through a rehabilitation program he gets a job as a janitor where by a simple act of kindness he meets Henryk Mandelbrot, a cancer patient, with whom he strikes up a friendship.
Mandelbrot has a ghastly story to tell, and like many Holocaust survivors, he feels an urgency about telling it, now as he nears the end of his life. ‘Tell everyone what happened here’ he says, insisting that Lamont learns this story, committing strange and hard-to-pronounce names and places to memory so that he can retell it, though what the context of that retelling might be, and what significance it might have, remains a mystery almost to the end of the book.
In the early chapters, it’s hard to see how the disparate stories of the characters might intersect. Mirroring the fleeting opportunities that people have to connect with each other in modern life, the story is presented in scraps. There is Lamont and old Mandelbrot. There are people who know them and see them, others who see them but fail to notice them or have time for them, and others who seem to have nothing to do with anybody. Professor Adam Zignelik lectures his students about this, the unlikely possibilities of history. His life has been shaped by the American Civil Rights Struggle and he piques their interest with a story about Germans singing Negro spirituals during the Hitler years, pulling the jagged shards of history together to show what might be ‘true, untrue, likely to be true, unlikely to be true or there is not enough known to you to say.’ (p93) But his own life both personal and professional is a mess, and he himself seems unlikely to be any use to anybody.
I like the way Perlman manages to keep a sense of perspective about human grief. It is difficult, I think, for any author to restrain the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust in a novel, yet Perlman gives equal dignity to the other characters who are isolated by their circumstances, and by their grief – even though their losses are, sadly, of the everyday kind in modern life. For Lamont, the loss of his freedom and life prospects is nothing compared to the loss of his daughter who he has not seen since she was a toddler. For Adam, the break-up of his relationship with Diana is a disaster which threatens to overpower him. Perlman manages to depict Adam’s sense of shame about having failed to live up to his early academic promise as poignant even though his life circumstances are so radically different to Lamont’s.
I also like Perlman’s mastery of voice. Lamont’s voice is a simple uneducated one, familiar to any of us who’ve seen a few Hollywood movies. Mandebrot’s has the rhythm and cadence of Yiddish. Adam pontificates and lectures in public while he rambles when alone in his desolate apartment. The tumult of voices and the evocation of place brings New York alive even for someone like me who’s never been there. This is a splendid book and very rewarding to read.
Author: Elliot Perlman
Title: The Street Sweeper
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2011
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.95
Update March 11 2012
The Street Sweeper has won the Indie Awards Best Fiction Book for 2012.
Fishpond: The Street Sweeper