Elliot Perlman, The street sweeper (Review)

Elliot Perlman‘s latest novel, The street sweeper, is a complex book with a pretty simple message. It’s complex because of its multiple interconnecting storylines that move back and forth between World War II, the American Civil Rights era, and contemporary times. It has multiple themes, about which I’ll write further, but the underlying message is simply this: history is important. Related to this is the idea that all things are connected. Let me explain …

The original characters in the novel, those from whom the connections flow, are two lawyers, the Jewish Jake Zignelik and African-American William McCay. Both were active in civil rights in the 1960s. However, as the novel starts, Jake has been dead for some time, and William is in his 80s. The baton, in a way, has been passed to their sons, Charlie and Adam who are historians at Columbia University. It is around 2008, and both men have lost their way somewhat. Charlie is a successful academic, so successful that his administrative duties are not only tearing him away from his main love, research, but also from the important relationships in his life, those with his father, wife and teenage daughter. Adam’s problem is different. His career has stalled. He hasn’t published anything for so long that he will not get tenure – and Charlie, who has been his mentor, but who has let that relationship slide too, can’t help. Adam, believing it’s the honourable thing to do, breaks up with his long-standing girlfriend, Diana, on the basis that he’s unable to be the husband and father that he believes she wants.

None of these characters, though, is the street sweeper of the title, because there is another significant character, the one who opens the novel. This is Lamont Williams, an African-American who has just started work as a janitor at a cancer hospital in a pilot program for ex-convicts. He, like Adam, is close to 40 years old. Lamont, we soon learn, is a good man to whom bad things happen, just like the hero in Perlman’s first novel, Three dollars. He is, in fact, innocent of the crime that put him in jail but his colour and poverty meant he didn’t have a chance – just like the Jews in war-time Europe.

The novel focus primarily on these two men – Adam and Lamont – as they struggle to get their lives on track. Lamont’s story sees him getting to know hospital patient and Holocaust survivor Henryk Mandelbrot who tells Lamont over a period of nearly 6 months of his experience under Nazism, particularly in Auschwitz. Mandelbrot wants his story known, and insists that Lamont learns and remembers it. Meanwhile, Adam, initially reluctantly, looks into a research project suggested by Charlie’s father William, one that sees him also learning about the horrors of the Holocaust. As the novel progresses, and more characters – from the past and present – are introduced, the connections and links between people multiply, rather like a Dickensian novel. There is, though, a point to these connections. Early in the novel, Perlman writes that

you never know the connections between things, people, places, ideas. But there are connections.

And these connections, whether we know it or not, can direct the trajectory of our lives – as they do for the characters in The street sweeper. There is also a central ideological connection in the book, and this is that there are “parallels between the situation of blacks in the United States and the Jews in Germany”.

A major theme of the novel – one of Perlman’s pet themes in fact – is that of moral responsibility, of what makes a “good” person. As so often happens, those who have the least but, paradoxically, the most to lose, are quickest to take the moral path. Early in the novel, and four days into his 6 months probation, Lamont is accosted by Mandelbrot who asks a favour. This favour is something Lamont is not supposed to do – it’s not his job – but, seeing the old man’s distress, he risks losing his job to do the right, the moral, thing. Late in the novel, a professional woman who has nothing to lose but a bit of her time is asked to do a moral thing. She experiences a jolt when, after a passage of time, she realises that she’d been prevaricating about an issue of justice. Not all characters though come to this realisation regarding their moral duty.

I said in my opening paragraph that the underlying message of the novel is that history matters. This is conveyed throughout the book by discussions about history and the role of historians, by showing historians going about their business, by reference to the “long causal chain” and to the importance of remembering, and most of all, by the refrain, “tell everyone what happened here”. You won’t be surprised to know that I loved the fact that Perlman explicitly and implicitly explores the theory and practice of history here, but it deserves a post of its own so watch this space … I’ll simply say now that Perlman explains in his author’s note which characters are based on “real” historical figures, and he provides an extensive list of the sources he used.

The question I always ask when reading historical fiction is why has the author decided to tell this story from the past? In Perlman’s case the answers are obvious. First it’s the one made explicitly in the novel, and that is to “tell everyone what happened here”. Then there’s the more implicit one to do with why we need to know what happened, and that is to ensure that the horrors visited upon the Jews in the Holocaust and the African-Americans in the US don’t happen again. And finally it’s to remind us of our basic moral responsibility which is, as William says to his son, to “Do what’s right here, Charlie”.

I could pick some holes in the novel. It’s big and a little baggy around the edges. It can verge on didacticism at times. And, to make the necessary connections, Perlman relies a lot on coincidence, which could seem contrived if you haven’t bought into the story. But, here’s the thing. I have read many good, even excellent, books this year. However, The street sweeper, like Rohinton Mistry‘s A fine balance and Margaret Atwood‘s The handmaid’s tale, is one that will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the characters, long, even, after I’ve forgotten how the plot falls out. And that, for me, is the best sort of read.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers also liked this novel.

Elliot Perlman
The street sweeper
Kindle edition
Random House, 2011

25 thoughts on “Elliot Perlman, The street sweeper (Review)

  1. Must say I’m not the biggest fan of coincidences or didacticism in novels… I think I’ll stick with the chimney sweep. You know, Mary Poppins’ friend who takes them through the painting in the park…

  2. I agree entirely with Tony, especially regarding the Miles Franklin award! This is such a fantastic book by one of Australia’s greatest writers. His session at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this year was completely overcrowded and he spoke so modestly, yet passionately about the issues that matter. Everyone should read this great novel! Geordie Williamson of The Australian slammed it in his review, especially because of its ‘didacticism’. However, that occurs primarily in the scenes where one of the characters teaches his kid about the history of the civil rights movement, and in that context, it was believable for me and not didactic to the reader.

    • Thanks for joining in Annette. I actually haven’t read any reviews yet … Besides Lisa’s that is, and now Tony’s. I must read Williamson’s. As I wrote above, I did notice an element of didacticism, so it was apparent to me … But it wasn’t anywhere near enough for it to bother me. Same as the piling up of coincidences. Those aren’t things that bother me if the writing, stories, characters are powerful enough … And here I thought they were. As I said, this is a book I’ll remember for a long time. Re the Miles Franklin, I haven’t read all the shortlist but I also thought Foal’s bread was a great novel.

      • I’ll have to read ‘Foal’s Bread’ as that’s the other one which has hoovered up the awards this year. One that also failed to make a splash was ‘Spirit of Progress’, a book I loved (a good addition to The Glenroy Trilogy).

  3. Can I join in with a grumpy contribution of my own? I thought Mark Dapin’s Spirit House was a book deserving much more attention than it received, and Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse was a more engaging book of more lasting merit than either Foal’s Bread or All That I Am.

    • Thanks Lisa … How would you define lasting merit? It’s a tricky concept to pin down I reckon but would love to know how you would define it in terms of those three books?

      I read recently that after White, Kate Grenville is the most taught author in Australia, presumably mainly due to The secret river. Is that about lasting merit? I wonder if she/it will last? Fascinating to consider … I’m thinking now of Jane Austen and her longevity. See, I’ve strayed far from you comment!!

      • Oh dear, I should have known this comment of mine would bring up this unanswerable question LOL! It’s a bit like trying to explain being in love, I think.
        But, to try, I’d say that Cold Light will last because it paints such a brilliant portrait of postwar life in Australia, and it takes in the wider world as well as the domestic politics while exploring the life of a most interesting woman and some unusual sexuality issues. And it’s sheer pleasure to read.
        But the others, well, I don’t want to criticise them, they’re award winning novels after all, but they are just not in the same league IMO.

        • Well that’s a start Lisa .. At least re Cold light. There’s a good chance my reading group will do it next year … Particularly given the Canberra centenary so I’ll see what I think then. In the meantime I do think Foal’s bread is a great read because it marries the universal with the particular so beautifully. It’s so heard to second guess what will last isn’t it … And why. So many good books are written but so few last.

  4. It sounds as though my TBR list will be growing as well. I loved ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ and as you say, still feel its imprint while I’ve forgotten mostly what it was about. This sounds like a very ambitious novel, handled well. Huge themes, intricacies between people. I’m just delving into Cate Kennedy’s short stories for the first time and they are quite breathtaking.

  5. I love any review that mentions my all-time favourite book A Fine Balance! It is wonderful to see that you’ve enjoyed The Street Sweeper as much as I did. Have you read HHhH by Laurent Binet? it is my favourite book of 2012 (The Street Sweeper comes a close second) and Binet also makes some important points about history and which aspects matter/are worth remembering. I think you might enjoy it.

    • Thanks Jackie … Looks like we like similar books. I’ve heArd of HHHhH but not really come across it over here … But if it mentions history, and you like it given our concurrence on Perlman and Mistry, it sounds like one I should check out. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. Pingback: How Can Such a Flawed Book Be So Powerful? | The Echidna and the Fox

  7. I am half way through this and would agree with the assessment that its a flawed but pretty compelling novel.

    • It’s a long time since I’ve read this Ian, though for some reason I look at my review recently. Perlman is always saved by his heart and passion for social justice I think.

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