Elliot Perlman’s THE STREET SWEEPER
“Who is going to sit in judgment over all this? And who is going to judge…me?”
“Tell everyone what happened here! Tell everyone! Tell everyone!”
Earlier this year Elliot Perlman spoke at the Leading Edge Book conference about his upcoming book. I had never read him before but had only heard good things about SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY and THREE DOLLARS. Elliot outlined the three elements of his new novel. Each element he outlined sounded like a fantastic novel in its own right yet the book he was describing somehow managed to weave all these parts together. I wanted to grab a copy straight away and start reading but alas the book was not quite finished at that time.
So I was more than excited when an advanced copy landed in my hands. I jettisoned the book I was currently reading, even though I was enjoying it, and immediately started THE STREET SWEEPER. Sometimes you can build a book up in your head and the weight of that expectation is too much for the book to live up to. Fortunately in this case my massive expectations were not only met they were exceeded.
Primarily this is a novel about The Holocaust but it is so much more than that. At its core it is about history. What is history? How do we record it? How do we pass it on? And the need and importance of remembering. Perlman manages to combine the horrors of what happened during The Holocaust with the civil rights movement in America during the 50s and 60s in such a profound way that you find yourself totally absorbed, outraged and horrified.
Perlman begins the story with Lamont Williams, an African-American who has just been released from prison after six years. He is desperate to find his estranged daughter who he has not seen in all that time but first he must survive six months probation at his new job working as a janitor in a Manhattan hospital. Through his job he befriends an elderly Jewish man, Henryk Mandelbrot who has an extraordinary story of survival to tell.
Interwoven with Lamont’s and Mandelbrot’s stories is Adam Zignelik, a historian at Columbia University, who is going through both a personal and professional crisis. He made a name for himself researching and writing about his father, a prominent civil rights lawyer, but has failed to produce any new work. At the urging of one of his father’s ex-colleagues he begins researching the untold history of African-American soldiers in Europe during the Second World War with the aim of linking the horrors these soldiers discovered of The Holocaust with the eventual birth of the civil rights movement when they returned home. His research uncovers the remarkable story of a man who was determined to record the voices and stories of the survivors of the most abominable atrocity in human history.
It took me a while to get into the unique rhythm of the book. The first two parts of the book are solely about Lamont and Adam but as more characters and stories begin to weave themselves into the narrative the richer and more engrossed you become. This is a novel you need to be emotionally prepared for but it also a novel you cannot afford to miss.