The Street Sweeper, By Elliot Perlman


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The Independent Culture

"Memory is a wilful dog... it won't be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you." The Street Sweeper is about the excavation of history, the way the past defines and entraps, the relentless quality of memory. At the core of this novel of stories within stories, the narratives of Lamont and Adam, both trying to remake their lives, run parallel and finally converge.

For Lamont, an African American ex- prisoner, "the trick is not to hate yourself." That's what he'd been told inside. If you can manage that, "then it won't hurt to remember almost anything". But nothing is easy. He searches for his daughter, denied him by his elusive lover, and must finish a six-month probationary period before he can secure a permanent job in building services of a cancer hospital in Manhattan.

Adam, Jewish historian of the civil rights movement, has done no research for years and will not be given tenure at Columbia. In the face of his uncertain career and ambivalence about becoming a father, he ends a relationship with a woman he adores. When his father's old friend, an African American civil-rights lawyer, suggests he look into the involvement of black soldiers in the liberation of the concentration camps, his search leads him to the most interesting story in the novel.

In 1946, Henry Border, a Polish Jewish psychology professor in Illinois researching the impact of trauma on speech patterns, went back to Europe to record interviews with displaced persons at a time when no one seemed to care or realise the extent of the Holocaust. Though Adam finds new purpose in Border's work, Border's life was destroyed when he learned from one of his interviewees that the wife whom he deserted in Poland was executed in Auschwitz.

Perlman is an astute storyteller, particularly in the opening scene when Lamont witnesses an altercation on a bus. Should he defend the elderly driver, or remain safe and uninvolved? It is the question to which this ambitious yet thoughtful novel keeps coming back. Perlman explores accountability by making links between the oppression of blacks in America and the Holocaust. Yet the descriptions of the death camps become so overwhelming that they overshadow the narratives of racism in America.

Perlman's determination to join up the parts of his narrative means that he relies on some incredible coincidences. The oncologist treating the Holocaust survivor who befriends Lamont has a grandfather who was in the battalion Adam is researching. One theme which resonates in these stories is the importance of bearing witness. Yet the scenes in hospital when Mandelbrot asks Lamont to be the keeper of his Holocaust memories can sound contrived and even sentimental.

The Street Sweeper reads at times like straight history, at others like a parable. Lamont is an innocent accused of crimes he never committed, a 21st-century Candide. Adam's quest is both a realistic narrative and a symbolic one. For them, descendants of Jewish migrants and African slaves, both fatherless, both unable to be fathers, the search for family is at the heart of the novel.