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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers from Victoria

Coat of Arms of Victoria (Australia)

Victoria's Coat of Arms (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Over the course of these Monday musings have been occasional posts on writers from specific geographic locations in Australia – but I have not done our two most populous regions, the states of Victoria and New South Wales. The time has come to confront there two – and so, today, I present you Victoria.

Now Victoria is a special state – not only does Mr Gums Jr live there, but its capital Melbourne was the second city to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature! That’s a pretty impressive achievement. I have written some literary road posts on Victoria, which have mostly focused on writers and works from the past, so in this post I will, as I have done in other regional posts, list (in no particular order) five of my favourite current writers from Victoria – some were born there, some migrated there.

Helen Garner

Garner is one of our most controversial writers – and has been, really, since the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip, which some critics argued was simply her writing her own life. They meant by this that it had no creative merit, no literary value. This didn’t deter our Helen though, and she has gone on to become one of our significant writers – of both fiction and non-fiction. She has also written some successful screenplays. She writes about relationships and the things that cause disconnects between people, no matter how much they wish it might not be so. As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t always agree with Garner, but I am always happy to read her because the woman has style. I’ve read too many of hers to list here, but if you’d like a recommendation, please ask!

Elliot Perlman

You may not have heard of Perlman, particularly if you are not Australian, because he is not particularly prolific. The first novel of his that I read was the multiple point of view Seven types of ambiguity (which makes a sly reference to literary theorist William Empson‘s book of the same name). It’s a good, thoughtful book about love and obsession, and the ambiguities therein! I then read Three dollars which explores the question of what happens “when bad things happen to good people” and how consumerism challenges (compromises) our values. It was adapted for film, starring the gorgeous David Wenham (aka Diver Dan if you are a Sea Change fan). Both these novels are set in Melbourne. According to Wikipedia he has a third novel out this year.

Arnold Zable

If you have been reading this blog recently, Arnold Zable will need no introduction. His focus is human rights, with a particular interest in the migrant experience. I’ve read two of his novels – Cafe Scheherazade and The sea of many returns – and will happily read more. His prose is lovely, his attitude warm and generous. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, Violin lessons.

Beverley Farmer

I’m going to throw in a somewhat forgotten, I think, writer here. Way back in 1988 when my reading group started, we focussed on Australian writers, particularly Australian women writers. One of those was Beverley Farmer. We read her collection of short stories Milk and not long after I also read her second collection of short stories, Home time. Both these were published in the 1980s. She has also written novels, and one of those writers’ notebooks, A body of water, in which she documented her ideas and thoughts over a year, the books she was reading, the people she met. I was drawn to her because of the evocative way she conveyed her experience of being a young Australian wife in a Greek village. Like Perlman, she’s not prolific, but in 2009 she was awarded the Patrick White Award (for writers who “have made a substantial contribution to Australian literature but … may not have received adequate recognition for their work”) which says something about the quality of her work.

Peter Carey

I’ll conclude on another controversial writer. People, it seems, either love him or hate him – and I fall more in the first camp. He is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice. I have by no means read all of his books but I like the fact that he takes risks in his writing. I think his Oscar and Lucinda is a worthy contender for the Great Australian Novel (should we take that notion seriously). His True history of the Kelly Gang makes a significant contribution to the Ned Kelly myth by attempting to tell the story in Kelly’s voice. It is not all “true” in the factual sense, but it contains a “truth” that Carey thought worth exploring. His most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in Americatook more risks – in voice and subject matter. Carey, as many of you will know, now lives in New York, but he was born in Victoria – and that’s good enough for this post!

So there you are, five Victorian writers. Now’s your chance to tell me what Victorian writers you like – or simply whether the writers I’ve listed here interest you.