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.’
‘There were six 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.