In the simplest terms possible, The Street Sweeper is a literary buddy story. In the big picture outlook author Elliot Perlman uses a developing relationship between two men who have suffered at the hands of government to write about big events and big ideas. Within this basic framework The Street Sweeper becomes an ambitious book about some of the worst racial persecution the twentieth century had to offer.
Lamont Williams feels lucky to have a job. As an African American newly out of prison he knows all too well that the odds are not in his favor. He had the good fortune to get placed in a job training program and now works at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a job and environment that he likes. He is sharing an apartment with the Grandmother who raised him and is saving to get his own place. His ultimate goal is to find the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was two.
While at work Lamont meets Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly patient at the Cancer Center. Henryk has a past as troubled at Lamont’s. Henryk is a Holocaust survivor. He tells Lamont about his life as a Jew in Poland and his experience in Auschwitz. The commonalities of racism, a distrust of authority and their innocence of the crimes for which they were accused bond the two in friendship.
A world away in the archives of a Midwestern university, Adam Zignelik makes a life altering discovery. He has found a forgotten trove of first person oral testimonies from Holocaust survivors. The timing of his find couldn’t be better. His career is at a dead end. His chances for tenure at Columbia University where he teaches are over and his personal life has been just as successful.
Perlman uses coincidence and shadowy connections to bring these three individuals together amidst a cast of if not thousands then certainly hundreds. His writing works when he uses it for good as in storytelling. Poetic description and the ability to make the necessary (?) historical back story not read like Cliff Notes are not his strengths.
However, those admittedly not tiny faults aside (Where was his editor?) I did enjoy The Street Sweeper. As I’ve said Elliot Perlman can tell a story. It’s disappointing that every element in the novel doesn’t come together to make The Street Sweeper better than it is but within the books’ sprawl there is passion and a commitment to honesty that resonates.