The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

Review copy courtesy Bond Street Books

Let me start this review with a warning: The Street Sweeper contains some of the most disturbing, heart-breaking prose that I can recall reading. As author Elliot Perlman brings his novel towards its conclusion, more and more of the book recounts the stories of the Sonderkommando, the death camp Jews who, on pain of an instant death, were required instead to load and unload the gas ovens, stockpile any final items of value and, finally, incinerate the bodies. It makes for dramatic reading but brings with it much more pain than joy.

How the author gets there, however, is an indication of the scope of this book. While the 544-page novel has an extensive cast of characters, the principal narrative threads are focused on two contemporary Americans — the street sweeper of the title and an historian who is about to lose his job at Columbia University — and how they discover their own versions of the story of the Holocaust.

Lamont Williams is the street sweeper. He is black, just out of prison after six years for his involvement in an armed robbery in which he was an unknowing participant as the driver of the getaway car. When we first meet him, he has just got the first good break of his life as the initial member of a new outreach program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, a program designed to provide a job for “non-violent offenders with exemplary prison records”. The following quote is chosen more to illustrate Perlman’s painstaking, deliberate prose style than anything else — how stories get told are a very important sub-theme in this novel:

Probation lasts six months. This was the first hour of day four, and the supervisor wasn’t to be found outside either. Maybe Lamont was meant to see the job at hand, to identify the problem himself and show some initiative. He looked outside to see if there was anything that looked like an obvious job for someone in Building Services. Everyone outside was smoking under the hospital awning — paramedics, anxious family members, even patients themselves. It didn’t make sense. Maybe they were all just about to quit. Maybe the patients among the smokers had a cancer other than lung cancer, and need the comfort of cigarettes to get them through it.

One patient sitting outside in a wheelchair is not smoking and he’s been deserted by Patient Escort Services. We will discover later that his name is Mandelbrot and he demands that Lamont return him to his room, even though that is clearly a PES responsibility, not one that a Building Services probationer is allowed to carry out. Lamont eventually acquiesces and, when the two get back to Mandelbrot’s room, the patient offers the opening lines of his story:

‘There were six death camps.’

‘What?’

‘There were six death camps.’

‘Six what?’

‘Death camps.’

‘What do you mean, “death camp”?’

‘There were exactly six death camps but you could die more than once in any of them.’

The importance of oral history in keeping alive both the story of the Holocaust and the state of American blacks post-WWII is another one of Perlman’s subtexts and he has just introduced it. Neither Holocaust survivors nor black freedom fighters had any other option to tell their stories. As the book unfolds, Mandelbrot’s decision to adopt Lamont as the recepient and caretaker of his story will occupy more and more of the narrative — a device that underlines why we all need to be listeners to the tragic stories that can be conveyed in no other way.

Adam Zignelik is the Columbia University professor and we meet him in the form of one of his dreams — it starts with the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, moves on to the deaths of four girls in the segragationist Birmingham bombing and concludes with the story of fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine black students who were attempting to become the first of their race to attend school in Little Rock.

Adam Zignelik hadn’t been born when this happened, when some young men in the crowd who had followed her back to the bus stop and were now behind Elizabeth Eckford started calling, ‘Lynch her! No nigger bitch is going to get into our school. We gotta lynch her! Lynch her! Lynch her!’ Jake Zignelik had been born but he wasn’t there. Who was there for Elizabeth Eckford at the bench at the bus stop near the tree in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the morning of 4 September 1957? Thousands of people were there. Was there anyone else there for her?

Adam comes by that dream legitimately — his father, Jake, was part of Thurgood Marshall’s team which won the Brown versus Board of Education decision that supposedly guaranteed the right of black students to go to that school. When Marshall moved on to the Supreme Court, Jake (a Jew) took over leadership of the NAACP-backed Legal Defense Fund, the legal arm of the civil rights movement. Alas, Jake was a better activist than he was a father — Adam’s mother left him when the boy was a young child and he was raised in Australia.

Adam had an early success as an historian with a book that turned him, however briefly, into a television talking head. That lead to the Columbia appointment (where a childhood friend, the son of one of his father’s colleagues at the LDF, now heads the department). His career has stalled and the lack of published articles means that not only will there not be tenure, he will be asked to leave.

It is a conversation with the department head’s father, Jake’s former colleague William McCray, that starts Adam on what will turn out to be his own Holocaust voyage. William is certain that black GIs were among the first to arrive at the Nazi death camps, although the official record conveniently ignores any mention. While Adam makes little progress on that front, he does discover the work of a Chicago psychologist who arrived at the death camps shortly after liberation and taped scores of survivor stories, many of which have remained undiscovered in the archives in the ensuing decades.

The first half of The Street Sweeper develops those narrative lines — the second half is dominated by the Holocaust memories that I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Both Lamont and Adam have their personal stories as well — it is perhaps a weakness of the book that in the final pages Perlman needs to bring all that together in a rather tidy conclusion that seems hollow given the gut-wrenching stories that immediately precede it.

On the other hand, that is consistent with the nature of oral history — often the stories that are told are grotesque compared to the mundane challenges of current reality. Yet, if we are to appreciate the horrific lessons of the past, some way has to be found to strike a balance between the two — ignoring the stories because they are too terrible is simply not an option.

The Street Sweeper won’t be to everyone’s taste and readers who have Holocaust fatigue (yes, at times I am one of them) may find it particularly challenging. Yet, Perlman’s decision to contrast the stories of American blacks and the Holocaust (even though he is careful not to draw direct comparisons) has value — some people’s stories can only be heard not read. The aging survivors of the two threads of his story are becoming fewer and fewer every year — if we don’t listen now, soon there will be no one left to tell the stories.

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24 Responses to “The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    Kevin, this is a wonderful review! I loved this book, and you are tempting me to put everything aside and read it all over again:)
    Thanks!

  2. David Says:

    Great review, Kevin. I thought this was an astonishingly good novel, though as you point out, a harrowing one too. I was baffled by the New York Times review that seemed to criticise the use of repetition, which seemed like the whole point to me: that important stories like those recounted in the novel have to be told again and again and learnt almost by rote, so that no detail of them is lost or misremembered.
    I take your point about the final scene seeming too neat – a couple of the coincidences and interconnected parts teetered on the edge of credibility for me (for instance the old lady in the home in Melbourne who says “all the boys liked [her]” and offers to read Adam’s palm – is this meant to be Ada, from the story about Rosa and Noah?), but for the most part I thought they worked very well, and I’ll admit that the final scene worked on an emotional level for me (and I very rarely get moved like that by a book).
    As soon as I’d finished reading this I ordered a copy of “Seven Types of Ambiguity” – Perlman is definitely an author I want to read more of.

    • Lisa Hill Says:

      I’m so pleased to read your response, David. It seems to me that Perlman seems to attract unreasonable reviews, others of which I won’t give air to by naming.
      I think it may be because he wears his political heart on his sleeve, in this case perhaps because he tackled the issue of African Americans not being given the credit they deserve for their service in WW2. Perhaps the NYT felt an Aussie had no business weighing into this issue? Interestingly, after this book was published, and perhaps because of it, witnesses in Melbourne came to light who authenticated the presence of African Americans in the camp liberation, as addressed in this novel.
      But at the end of the day what matters is that it’s a good story, well told, and in the service of a universal truth too.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa, David: I’m not surprised that there are some negative reviews out on this one. Holocaust novels (and ones about the black experience in America, for that matter) not only produce fatigue in some, they also have developed almost an “ownership” industry in some corners of commentary and academia. As in, “our” version is the “correct” version and there can be no other (this crosses the political spectrum — it is more a reflection of depth of feeling than anything else). And of course these are the kinds of “experts” that conventional media sources turn to when looking for a reviewer.

    Despite the lengthy list of sources that Perlman consulted, it should be emphasized that this is a fiction reader’s book, not an academic one (that would be my version of Perlman “wearing his political heart on his sleeve”). He juxtaposes a number of stories and themes because they interest him — like David, I don’t often respond emotionally to novels but I did to this one. And you’ll note in the review I made no effort to try to identify just how much of the threads of this novel are “real” — I know from Perlman’s note that a number are, but that aspect of the book wasn’t central to me. My guess would be that someone who wanted to pick historical nits with the author would find a lot to point out — I’d rather not pay attention to the debate.

    I suspect that also leads to the complaint about the prose style in the NY Times review. If you are finding the book wanting on other grounds, it is easy to see where that technique of repitition would become irritating. That’s part of the reason why I mentioned the “tidiness” of the conclusion — for me, Perlman needed to tie his threads together and I was more than willing to grant him whatever artistic licence was required because by then I was quite enrolled with both his characters and their stories.

    I was impressed with Seven Types of Ambiguity when I finally got to it earlier this year. I think Three Dollars will likely be my next Perlman. He is a good example of my idea of a favorite “find” — a mid-career author with an impressive catalogue, but one who is new to me.

  4. workingwords100 Says:

    Kevin, your reviews seem to spark debate, and I am ready to put my 2 cents in.

    In New Orleans, the Jewish people worked with the African Americans for Civil Rights in the 1960s. I don’t know whether this happened in other parts of the country or not. For awhile, there was a kinship between two oppressed peoples. Maybe that’s a reason to juxtapose the stories?

    (The Jewish people were not “white” enough; in the 1800s, a Jewish man was refused entry to a race track. He bought it a few years later and turned it into a cemetery. However, you can still see the oval shape of the race track even today.)

    New information – there is still a lot of information that hasn’t been written about. I recently had to scan an article about a Royal Naval doctor’s impressions of what he saw at one of the camps. Although it was clinical, I could feel the disbelief of what he said that he saw. Some of the events that he saw have never been discussed in any novels nor shown in any movies about the Holocaust. I don’t know whether it’s been in any history book…

    Ownership – Your countryman, Yann Martel, wrote a novel about trying to write a novel about the Holocaust. It received a savage review from the NY Times. I am finally in the midst of reading it; having the viewpoint of an outsider can provide new insights.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/books/13book.html?_r=1&ref=bookreviews

    I will look for Perlman’s novel, since I’ve never seen the African American/Holocaust themes explored together.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    workingwords100: Your comment makes excellent sense — and I agree with the assessment that putting those streams together is an entirely valid rationale for a novelist. For what it is worth, I think Perlman (an Australian) delivers on the premise quite well. The result is not just emotionally draining, it is thought-provoking — fiction readers cannot ask for anything more.

    I’d also note that the author does not present this as a political polemic. By adopting the narrative viewpoints of a hospital cleaner and honest (if not successful) academic he looks at the evidence from the point of view of ordinary people.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    workingword100: I thought I would also leave a second response, one that deals more with what this blog hopes to achieve.

    I am heartened by your initial statement: one of the aims of this blog is to encourage debate about the books that I do review. Yes, I want to indicate what books I think are worth (or sometimes not worth) reading but even more importantly I would like to offer some thoughts that spark debate and encourage readers to look at the novels from different points of view.

    I don’t pretend to offer any point of view beyond my own but one of my goals is to offer that in a way that people can disagree, denounce or expand with additional information. I’d like to think that I open avenues for discussion, rather than pronounce on which may be right or wrong. An informed, energetic comment exchange, for me, represents an indication that I have succeeded.

    And it is why I encourage all visitors here to join in the comments — all opinions are valid.

  7. sshaver Says:

    You’re a stronger person than I am.

  8. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I like the ambition in Perlman’s work and I would certainly like to read this novel on the basis of your excellent review. I read Seven Types of Ambiguity a few years ago and admired it greatly even though I thought that some of his `voices’ were better realised than others.
    It seems almost shameful to admit that sometimes I too can feel that I don’t want to read yet another account of the Holocaust. It’s material that has become all too familiar and for non Jews it’s doesn’t have that aching personal connection. However I recently read The Lost by New York writer and reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn having dithered a bit in the bookshop for the reasons I’ve given above. I’m so glad I did because this account of his search for his lost relatives from the Polish town of Bolechaw is one of the finest things I’ve read for several years.This is because it’s not only a fascinating account of his family and a very gripping piece of research but it’s also a meditation on family history and memory that speaks to all of us and especially those of us who are getting older and are seeing our parents aunts and uncles dying off. I remember being moved by Konin written by Theo Richmond in the 90′s which covers similar territory but the Mendelsohn book is quite exceptional and I recommend it unreservedly.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      Mary, I have The Lost on the shelf so it’s great to hear your opinion of the book. I’d heard it was excellent, so much so that I started to worry it couldn’t live up to the reviews I read. Maybe that’s why I’ve put off reading it for over a year now. You’ve given me a push to bump it up the reading list sometime soon.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Perlman uses that same technique of alternating voices in this novel. For me it was more successful here — there were fewer voices and hence more consistency.

    Thanks for the recommendation on the Mendelsohn. I will keep an eye out for it.

  10. Karyn Says:

    We must listen to the oral histories and as you say, there are now so few survivors. Thank goodness for Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah project. “Lest we forget”. As Jews, we are commanded to remember. This is now at the top of my “to read” list. Thank you Kevin.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Karyn: I seem to have read a number of novels about the uncertainty of memory lately (The Sense of an Ending certainly comes to mind) but Perlman approachs it from a different point of view in this book. Yes, many of the memories here are uncertain as well, but his point is that we need to do all we can to capture and hold what we can remember, whatever uncertainties might be involved.

  12. Anna Says:

    Hi Kevin

    I am so glad to see that you reviewed this book. I was shattered after reading the NYT review. It just seemed like the reviewer read some other book all together, he completely missed the point. The Street Sweeper was one of my favourite books of last year, I found it incredibly powerful and very moving on so many levels. Yes, some of the scenes were very disturbing but how about the scene when Lamont recites the story of Mandelbrot in that small HR room of the hospital… I can’t remember when I book affected me so much, I have been carrying this story with me for months now.
    This was my first book by Perlman but it will certainly not be the last.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anna: I won’t comment on the NY Times review beyond saying that I can understand why someone might not like the book. But even if that is the case, I can’t understand why they would not see why others do.

  14. kimbofo Says:

    I’m itching to read this book more than ever now. But I’m dithering as to which Australian author to read first: Carey or Elliot?

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Since I read this one first, I guess I can’t be relied on for ann impartial opinion. The Carey did arrive this week — it is lined up behind David Park (which I am close to halfway through) and Michael Frayne.

      • kimbofo Says:

        Hope you’re enjoying the Park. And I’m looking forward to reading Frayne shortly. I heard him speak at a Faber promotional evening a few weeks back and he was delightfully self-deprecating. (I also got to ride in the lift with him AND Edna O’Brien — quite surreal.)

  15. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Count me in as one with Holocaust fatigue, in fiction that is.

    It seems a subject which so easily lends weight to a book, weight that often isn’t deserved. I read a while back V, by Pynchon, which explores (among many other things) how a war of genocide in Africa against the Herero people became a dry-run for the Holocaust. Without in any way diminishing the horror of what was to come in the 1930s and ’40s it showed how there had already been an experiment in exterminating a people using death camps and medical experimentation (some carried out by Dr Mengele in fact).

    That earned the weight of its subject matter, for me in part because it illustrated it in a way I hadn’t seen before. One can be too facile with these links (Pynchon later thought he’d gone perhaps too far in drawing parallels), but what Pynchon tried was to say something new about a subject that it’s hard to talk about at all.

    This sounds, well, a touch worthy. Educational even. Does he bring anything that wouldn’t be better received by reading accounts of actual survivors?

    On another note, I wasn’t particularly persuaded by the dialogue you quoted. How did you find that side of things?

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think it is safe to say that every author who chooses to use a Holocaust setting thinks he or she is bringing at least an aspect of new perspective — sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case I think what Perlman was after is illustrating a link between the untold stories of post-war American blacks, their fathers (whose role in WWII has been downplayed) and the slowly disappearing stories of Holocaust survivors. I’d say that despite my going-in fears that I wouldn’t like the book, he succeeded.

    My dialogue examples are probably more awkward than most of the book. Having said that, this is a novel of raw emotion not delicate prose.

  17. Tony Says:

    This is an excellent book, and I am astounded that here in Australia the far inferior ‘All That I Am’ won our highest literary prize while ‘The Street Sweeper’ wasn’t even short-listed…

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: I agree that it is an excellent book. I shouldn’t try to second guess juries but I suspect the Miles Franklin one thought it wasn’t “Australian” enough. From both Lisa and your reviews, I don’t think All That I Am would have much appeal to me.

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