The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman


As he did in his book Seven Types of Ambiguity, the author depends on coincidences for this 617 page book to work. He begins with the story of a sympathetic character, Lamont Williams, who had just been released after six years in jail. Lamont had agreed to give a ride to his old friend and a man he didn’t know who robbed a store, making Lamont an unwitting get-away driver. He had gotten a job with a six-month probationary period working at a hospital in Manhattan. In his first few days there, when he was out on the street, a patient asked him to take him back to his room. Although this was against the rules, Lamont helped the man and thus began a friendship with a Holocaust survivor. This connection is the heart of the book; the oppression of black people in this country and the Holocaust.

Another connection is sought by William McCray, a man who had been active in working for civil rights during the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He had heard about Black soldiers being among those who liberated death camps at the end of the war and he wanted his son who headed the history department at Columbia to establish this fact. As it happened, the son wasn’t going to tackle that academic pursuit, but had a good friend who was on the verge of having to leave Columbia, having failed to become tenured.

The storyline of Adam Zignelik, that friend, is a dramatic one. He had written a well-received book about his father, a Jewish attorney who worked in support of the Brown case, but Adam had done no significant academic work after that. When the book begins, he has broken off with his beloved as a part of the despair he experiences with this development. At this low point he spends time with William McCray and takes up that historical search which takes him multiple times to Chicago and some amazing discoveries relating to the Holocaust. Recounting the fictitious historical research does make for a good story, and one that is heart-rending when it focuses on the Holocaust.

These storylines, along with tangential ones connected to each, are recounted in short bursts. The text is quite repetitious, perhaps because this long book has many strands and one might need to be reminded of what has come before. As those two main storylines come together at the end, long and detailed episodes describing the Nazi death camps set up that connection. Those passages are searing, and were too much for me. While the characters in the present-day story were fictional, many in the war and post-war stories were based on actual people.

This book does have an Australia connection. First, the author is a well-known Australian writer and his previous book that I read is set there. In this one, the character Adam’s Australian mother met his American father, but the marriage was not successful, so she returned to Australia where Adam was raised.

Elliot Perlman, The Street Sweeper, Riverhead Books, 2012, 617 pages. Available from UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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