The Street Sweeper

By Elliott Perlman

(Riverhead, $28.95, 640 pages)

Who is this author?

What kind of national background does it take for an author to produce a much-applauded novel that entwines the Holocaust with the civil rights movement? In this case, the answer is – surprisingly — Australian. Elliott Perlman, soon to be 48, is of Jewish Eastern European descent and a second-generation Aussie. He studied law there and worked as a judge’s assistant, but turned to writing in the 1990s. He has since written three novels and a story collection, among them “The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming” and “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” and has won prizes for his literary efforts.

What is this book about?

“The Street Sweeper” is about two of the greatest examples of man’s inhumanity to man in our lifetime: the ongoing prejudice against African Americans and the unfathomable  evil of the Nazi-led Holocaust. Perlman tackles these historical horrors by focusing his story on a few contemporary characters: Lamont, a black ex-convict who works as a janitor in the Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York and becomes the unlikely friend of a dying Polish man who is an Auschwitz survivor; and Adam, an Australian-Jewish Columbia University professor who revitalizes his flagging career when he researches whether African American soldiers helped to liberate the Dachau concentration camp.

Lamont becomes a shocked and sympathetic listener to the old man’s grim memories and is bequeathed a menorah when he dies. But he is accused of stealing it and is fired, and the two main threads of the novel intertwine when Adam helps him prove his innocence.

Why you’ll like it:

Some may feel that the Holocaust has been so deeply mined for novel after novel, film after film, that there is nothing left to be said about it. Perlman proves them wrong.  By juxtaposing the struggle of black people for respect and equality with the suffering of the victims of profound Nazi cruelty, he explores both the depths of depravity and the un-killable resilience of the human spirit.

While the story is paramount here, Perlman also possesses a very lyrical and readable style. Here, for example, is a short excerpt from the book’s opening:

“Memory is a willful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.”

Pretty impressive, I’d say.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “At the heart of Perlman’s long, labyrinthine, but rewarding novel are two narratives: a Polish Jew tells the tale of his ordeal in a Nazi death camp to a black American ex-con while evidence of black American soldiers liberating a concentration camp is unearthed by an Australian-Jewish history professor. That these stories cleverly mirror one another is one of the many strengths of Perlman’s (Seven Types of Ambiguity) latest saga… . Other related characters weave in and out, the coincidences of their intersections fraught with tantalizing meaning. Perlman deftly navigates these complicated waters, moving back and forth in time without having to take narrative responsibility for the course of history. In so doing, he brilliantly makes personal both the Holocaust and the civil rights movement, and crafts a moving and literate page-turner.”

 “In the best kind of books, there is always that moment when the words on the page swallow the world outside — subway stations fly by, errands go un-run, rational bedtimes are abandoned — and the only goal is to gobble up the next paragraph, and the next, and the next… A towering achievement: a strikingly modern literary novel that brings the ugliest moments of 20th-century history to life, and finds real beauty there,”  says Entertainment Weekly.

“This is not a flawless work, as its very size and complexity can diffuse the power of its message. It is nonetheless important—so ambitious that its contents can only be hinted at in a summary. Perlman has done a valuable service by updating our understanding of history and making it resonate in a work of fiction,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

You can find it at the Downtown and Mark Twain branches of the Hartford Public Library.

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