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.
The street sweeper
Random House, 2011