The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman

What motivates a writer to compose a work of fiction? To entertain? To provide an escape from mundanities? To enlighten? To invite the reader to consider something new or ponder a fresh perspective on something old? Or to portray in fictional form real events that come alive in the imagination through the characters in a story?

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“Tell everyone what happened here.” And in The Street Sweeper Elliot Perlman does just that.

“Recently released from prison, Lamont Williams, an African American probationary janitor in a Manhattan hospital and father of a little girl he can’t locate, strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly patient, a Holocaust survivor who was a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A few blocks uptown, historian Adam Zignelik, an untenured Columbia professor, finds both his career and his long-term romantic relationship falling apart. Emerging from the depths of his own personal history, Adam sees, in a promising research topic suggested by an American World War II veteran, the beginnings of something that might just save him professionally, and perhaps even personally.

As these men try to survive in early-twenty-first-century New York, history comes to life in ways neither of them could have foreseen. Two very different paths—Lamont’s and Adam’s—lead to one greater story as The Street Sweeper, in dealing with memory, love, guilt, heroism, the extremes of racism and unexpected kindness, spans the twentieth century to the present, and spans the globe from New York to Chicago to Auschwitz.”

A work of contemporary fiction, The Street Sweeper is well researched and artfully constructed, the interweaving of the two parallel narratives holding the reader in thrall as Perlman juxtaposes the black civil rights movement of African Americans with the persecution of Jews in Poland before and during WWII.

Gripping from cover to cover, The Street Sweeper entertains, educates, and above all brings the reader’s own moral compass to the fore. “Tell everyone what happened here”. There were parts of this story I could scarcely bring myself to read, and towards the end I had trouble seeing the print as my glasses fogged up with my tears.

I could criticise this work. But I won’t because it would be nit picking. I could cynically accuse the author of jumping on the Holocaust-porn bandwagon, buying into our morbid fascination for the horrors of the death camps in Nazi Germany, but I would be doing a disservice to an author at pains to make a significant contribution to the remembering. Remembering that needs to occur and reoccur; the events all too recent, all too easily overlooked in the busy information traffic of our lives.

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2 Comments

  1. Good review and I like your comments on nit picking. Holocaust porn etc. There is a crucial difference between that and “remembering”, and this book does sound as though it falls into the latter category.

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