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Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper

Elliot Perlman (Bond Street Books 2012, hardcover) 554 pages, bibliography

This is my second review of Elliot Perlman’s new novel The Street Sweeper. My first was sent to a friend at Random House Canada, the publicist who sent me the book. That review? It was one word: Wow. For you, I’ll expand on that opinion.

This is a giant’s footprint of a novel, covering the Holocaust, Civil Rights, and the meaning of History itself. These are not topics for writers with faint hearts and impatient fingers. A story like the Holocaust and the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau is something which the average reader thinks he already knows - you’ve seen it in school, you’ve seen it in movies, you’ve read it in books - what more can possibly be said to bring any new emotional reaction to the experience? How can something old become something new?

For me, the core passage of the book is where the cancer-ravaged Holocaust survivor Henryk Mandelbrot decsribes how he survived the brief prisoner’s riot at Auschwitz by running into the burning Crematorium IV and away from the indiscriminately firing SS. Mandelbrot summarizes the experience from his hospital bed by telling the black janitor, Lamont Williams, the following:

‘I didn’t know anything, Mr. Lamont. I could try now to pretend to be a hero. I was not a hero. There were plenty of heroes. I was not one of them. The heroes died. Look, when a building is on fire sometimes not all of it is on fire.’

Yes exactly. No matter what the death, whatever the destruction, something survives. Something survives, waiting to be discovered, unearthed, brought back to life. Something from then which can speak to now. And whose job is that, to do the discovery?

Meet Adam Zignelic, Professor of History at Columbia University in New York. I am not a clinical psychologist so I am in no way qualified to make a diagnosis of a living person. However, as Adam is a literary creation and I am a reviewer, I will do just that. Adam is suffering from clinical depression. Nowhere in The Street Sweeper is that termed used, however all the symptoms are present. His research and writing has dwindled to evaporation; he can scarcely make it through a lecture of his course (with the alluring title of What is History?); he suffers from sobbing nightmares of the atrocities of racism in America; he ends his long relationship with his common-law spouse Diana because Adam does not feel capable of raising and supporting a child; he phones people when they are unlikely to be in to receive the call. He’s a mess.

Having a reputation to live up to will do that to a man. Adam’s late father Jake was one of the liberal Jewish lawyers who joined with the black lawyers in Thurgood Marshall’s office to fight the legal battles which led to the civil rights struggles and successes of the 1960s. Another of those lawyers, one of the black lawyers, was William McCray, whose son Charles is now Chair of the History Department at Columbia.  The McCrays and Zignelics were and are close.

That alone is indicative of the echoing structure that is The Street Sweeper. I’m going to throw out a dangerous name here, so be prepared. In the way plots and sub-plots match, mingle, reflect and comment on one another Perlman has created a piece of storytelling worthy of Shakespeare. I take a deep breath, because that is the sort of comparison that can get you in all kinds of trouble. Still, this novel bears that weight.

Consider the various searches. Lamont, recently released from prison, searches for his daughter. Adam, at William’s urging, goes searching for evidence that black troops were involved in the liberation of the death camps. Henryk searches for someone to hear and remember his story of the Holocaust. And the trump card is Dr. Henry Border, who in 1945 travels to Europe to interview the death camp survivors with a wire recorder discovers a truth he never sought. Whether for good or for ill, when one searches, one always finds more than what one seeks.

What I admire most about Elliot Perlman and how he handled this true epic is his restraint until it is time to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. It fooled me at first; I admit that. Even while I was enjoying every page, particularly once the plot began to move forward into the past, with the shadow of the death camps clouding the story of civil rights and academic struggle, I was still hoping for the writing to fire. I wanted emotional payoffs, in other words. A young black girl (Lamont’s lost daughter, we wonder?) is alone on a subway in New York City and as Adam’s nightmares had included the story of young black girls torn to death by racist mobs we think, expect and fear an outcome...which doesn’t come.

It doesn’t come yet. When it arrives in Henryk Mandelbrot’s oral history of the prisoner’s revolt and its aftermath it comes in all the angry power of gods gone mad. The words burn, the sentences explode, the pages reach out, grab you by the scruff of the neck and force you to live this scene.

I was equally drained and paradoxically exhilarated by the end of The Street Sweeper. Not every loose end was tidily wrapped, which I also think is shrewd storytelling. For there is always the message: seek out and listen, and you shall discover the truth.

Or as I said before: Wow.

(If you would like to order a copy of The Street Sweeper, you may do so at the By the Book Store. Thank you.)

Who Wrote This?

Hubert O'Hearn is a syndicated book reviewer, Contributing Editor to San Francisco Book Review and Contributor to Herald de Paris. He is available for reviewing, editing and public speaking and can be reached at:


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