An ex-con strikes up an unlikely friendship with a dying Holocaust survivor in Elliot Perlman's terrific third novel, The Street Sweeper.
As if the Holocaust and the civil rights movement weren't large enough to tackle on their own, Australian author Perlman manages to weave together both in twin strands of plot. But his underlying subject is memory -- both individual and collective. Or, as one character's class is titled: “What is history?”
Lamont Williams spent six years in prison for giving his friends a lift to the liquor store. (He was unaware they were planning to rob it at the time.) Just released and living with the grandmother who raised him, he has one goal: to find his little girl, whom he hasn't seen since she was 2.
His best shot at a “normal life” is a probationary job as janitor at a New York hospital. One day, he meets Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly cancer patient. While readers know what the tattooed number on Henryk's arm means, Williams has to ask his grandmother what a “death camp” is. But Henryk, who knows all about unjust imprisonment, chooses Williams to be the recipient of his life story, nonetheless.
At Columbia, historian (at least for now) Adam Zignelik knows his chances for tenure have dried up. Just to give himself plenty of self-pity to wallow about in, he submarines his personal life along with his professional one. An old family friend, a civil rights activist and World War II veteran, sets his research in a new direction, telling him, “There'll always be time to quit, I promise you.” In the archives of a Midwestern university, Adam makes a discovery that might resuscitate his career.
“The Street Sweeper” takes its time getting up to speed, laying the framework on which to stretch its massive canvas. While Lamont is instantly sympathetic and Henryk compelling, Adam is initially a harder sell. (The many pages of him delivering a lecture about Gandhi and slain anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer also don't indicate that the tenure committee has made a tragic mistake.)
Then the novel really gets going, and all a reader can do is hang on tight to both covers.
Over 617 pages, Perlman plays out Adam's thesis that lives are bound by connections most of us brush right past. “But there are connections. You'll never know where you'll find them,” Adam tells his students. “Most people don't know where to find them or even that there's any point to finding them. Who even looks?”