The Street Sweeper

Riverhead Books  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

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