The Street Sweeper

  • Review
By – March 27, 2012

Well-known in Aus­tralia as their mul­ti-prize win­ning nov­el­ist, Elliot Perl­man has ven­tured into new lit­er­ary ter­ri­to­ry — Amer­i­ca and Europe — with an intrigu­ing work, The Street Sweep­er. Choos­ing from the many pos­si­bil­i­ties avail­able he has focused on two dra­mat­ic issues: the race prob­lem in Amer­i­ca and the Holo­caust in Europe.

Col­or­ful char­ac­ters keep enter­ing the nar­ra­tive as it pro­gress­es, and for each of them, life holds some source of emo­tion­al pain or dis­com­fort. Adam, for exam­ple, is a Jew­ish Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor who was trau­ma­tized as a child by his father’s accounts of the vicious behav­ior toward blacks by white anti-inte­gra­tionists dur­ing the ear­ly civ­il rights strug­gle in the South. Now, unnerved, unable to find a top­ic for a new book to insure a vote of tenure, he breaks off his love affair.

Lam­ont, a black hos­pi­tal jan­i­tor recent­ly released from prison, has lost con­tact with his daugh­ter. Hen­ryk Man­del­brot, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, feels a com­pul­sion to tell what he saw to a younger gen­er­a­tion before he dies of can­cer. Adam’s black depart­ment head and his wife, Lam­on­t’s styl­ish cousin, argue con­stant­ly. Dr. Bor­der, who record­ed inter­views with Holo­caust sur­vivors, left a bit­ter mar­i­tal rift behind in Poland.

The book is packed with mass­es of deeply mov­ing his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al about the civ­il rights move­ment and about the suf­fer­ing of Euro­pean Jews dur­ing the Hitler regime. After a con­sci­en­tious search of the text, though, this review­er must con­fess to being unable to find one top­ic that should be there — the trips South by bus­loads of white sym­pa­thiz­ers who served in the ear­ly civ­il rights demon­stra­tions. Some of those peo­ple, some Jew­ish, paid with their lives for their par­tic­i­pa­tion. Since Mr. Perl­man tells inter­view­ers how impor­tant it is to him per­son­al­ly that blacks and Jews help one anoth­er in time of trou­ble, the omis­sion, obvi­ous­ly inad­ver­tent, is dou­bly unfor­tu­nate. Dropped in lat­er is the name, with no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, of one of those Jew­ish dead.

Seri­ous, pas­sion­ate­ly writ­ten, the nov­el is unspar­ing in its explo­ration of the worst of the Holo­caust expe­ri­ences. In Amer­i­ca, too, there’s a long pas­sage in which noth­ing goes right for any­one.

Final­ly, though, the sto­ry ends hap­pi­ly, with the help of an aston­ish­ing feat of mem­o­riza­tion and one remark­able coincidence.

The Street Sweep­er by Elliot Perl­man Read­ing Group Questions
Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

Discussion Questions