The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper

3.6 12
by Elliot Perlman

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How breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first seem so far away.

From the civil rights struggle in the United States to the Nazi crimes against humanity in Europe, there are more stories than people passing one another every day on the bustling streets of every crowded city. Only some stories survive to become history.

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How breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first seem so far away.

From the civil rights struggle in the United States to the Nazi crimes against humanity in Europe, there are more stories than people passing one another every day on the bustling streets of every crowded city. Only some stories survive to become history.

Recently released from prison, Lamont Williams, an African American probationary janitor in a Manhattan hospital and father of a little girl he can’t locate, strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly patient, a Holocaust survivor who was a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A few blocks uptown, historian Adam Zignelik, an untenured Columbia professor, finds both his career and his long-term romantic relationship falling apart. Emerging from the depths of his own personal history, Adam sees, in a promising research topic suggested by an American World War II veteran, the beginnings of something that might just save him professionally, and perhaps even personally.

As these men try to survive in early-twenty-first-century New York, history comes to life in ways neither of them could have foreseen. Two very different paths—Lamont’s and Adam’s—lead to one greater story as The Street Sweeper, in dealing with memory, love, guilt, heroism, the extremes of racism and unexpected kindness, spans the twentieth century to the present, and spans the globe from New York to Chicago to Auschwitz.

Epic in scope, this is a remarkable feat of storytelling.

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Editorial Reviews

Adam Langer
…a wonderfully rich, engaging and multilayered new novel…[Perlman's] boldest work yet…the story is truly impressive in the breadth of its details…Perlman can be a stubbornly old-fashioned writer with a profound dedication to the idea of the novel's social importance. And he has produced a well-researched and passionately told work. On nearly every page, we can sense the author's fascination with history and his deep affection for these characters.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
At the heart of Perlman’s long, labyrinthine, but rewarding novel are two narratives: a Polish Jew tells the tale of his ordeal in a Nazi death camp to a black American ex-con while evidence of black American soldiers liberating a concentration camp is unearthed by an Australian-Jewish history professor. That these stories cleverly mirror one another is one of the many strengths of Perlman’s (Seven Types of Ambiguity) latest saga. Lamont Williams, just out of prison and working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, befriends Henryk Mandelbrot, a patient and Holocaust survivor who recounts his experiences as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland and later working the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Adam Zignelik, in fear of losing his teaching job at Columbia and depressed after breaking up with his girlfriend, discovers early voice recordings of Jewish prisoners, which he scours for testimony that African-American soldiers may have been involved in the liberation of Dachau. Other related characters weave in and out, the coincidences of their intersections fraught with tantalizing meaning. Perlman deftly navigates these complicated waters, moving back and forth in time without having to take narrative responsibility for the course of history. In so doing, he brilliantly makes personal both the Holocaust and the civil rights movement, and crafts a moving and literate page-turner. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Perlman (Seven Types of Ambiguity) delivers a potent novel about the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of two characters in contemporary New York City. Lamont Williams, a young black man just released from prison, works in maintenance at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. While helping Mandelbrot, a patient with terminal cancer, he learns the old man was in Auschwitz. This is unfamiliar history to Lamont, but Mandelbrot feels a certain sympathy for him and tells him about the camp in harrowing detail. Meanwhile, Adam Zignelik, a history professor at Columbia University, discovers recordings of conversations with camp survivors made directly after the war. Before dying, Mandelbrot presents Lamont with a menorah, but Lamont is accused of stealing it and loses his job. Eventually, the stories converge as Lamont seeks to clear his name with Adam's help. VERDICT This is not a flawless work, as its very size and complexity can diffuse the power of its message. It is nonetheless important—so ambitious that its contents can only be hinted at in a summary. Perlman has done a valuable service by updating our understanding of history and making it resonate in a work of fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 7/5/11.]—Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

the first frozen apple juice,
enriched with vitamin C.
Rich, delicious Seneca . . .
Memory is a wilful dog. It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you. It can sustain you or feed on you. It visits when it is hungry, not when you are. It has a schedule all its own that you can never know. It can capture you, corner you or liberate you. It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.
Rich, delicious Seneca,
sweetened naturally.
‘The trick is not to hate yourself.’ That’s what he’d been told inside. ‘If you can manage not to hate yourself, then it won’t hurt to remember almost anything: your childhood, your parents, what you’ve done or what’s been done to you,’ he was told. But even at the time, it struck Lamont that a lot of the people who had been locked up with him did not ‘hate themselves’ quite enough. He remembers a lot of the people being fairly forgiving towards themselves. Some, positively brimming with forgiveness for themselves, could not understand it when others were not so forgiving of them. This dissociation from who you were, where you were, could even be funny.
One night alone at lockdown, he found himself smiling about it, and implicit in the smile was a sense of being different from all the other men in all the other cells. It was not simply innocence Lamont felt that night but something additional that made him feel as though he was only visiting his present circumstances, as though he was only a guest there. He thought of himself then as being like a man who had mistakenly got on the wrong train or the wrong bus and for the moment was unable to get off. He had to live with it for a while, a temporary inconvenience. It could have happened to anybody. He went to sleep with this feeling, comforted by it. But in the morning the smile had gone and so had the sense of being different from all the other men. By the time he too was shuffling in a long hot line of incarcerated men waiting for breakfast, the grievances of the other men didn’t seem funny at all and it was impossible for him to understand how they ever had been. He remembers wanting that feeling back. He still wants it back, even now. Sometimes the memory of the feeling is almost enough. It’s funny what you remember. There’s no controlling it.
There was one prisoner in there – they called him Numbers – a little guy. He would make you smile. Numbers would say anything that occurred to him, anything that found its way into his head, and try to sell it as though it were a fact, a fact that God himself had just sweetly whispered in his ear. Numbers once told Lamont that seventy-two months was the national average of time served for robbery. Numbers was sure of it. Even as Lamont heard it, he knew Numbers was making it up. Even if he was right, Numbers was making it up. What did it mean? Did this cover all states? What about federal cases? Did it include armed robbery? What about cases with more than one charge, where only one of the charges was robbery? What if you had no prior convictions? Lamont had had no prior convictions. He had been charged a couple of times, but just as a juvenile and nothing had stuck. One hot night a friend of his had asked him if he would drive the friend and some other much younger man from the neighbourhood to the liquor store on their way to get some pizza before a night of videos and television. Lamont stayed double-parked in the van, listening to the radio while the other two went into the liquor store. The first time Lamont knew what they had really had in mind was when they ran out of the store screaming for him to drive away as fast as he could. The much younger man, still a teenager really, the one Lamont barely knew, had had a gun. Lamont Williams had not met this man more than three times in his life. The other, the older one, had been Lamont’s friend since they were in grade school.
Seventy-two months was the national average for armed robbery, Numbers had said. First it had been the average for robbery, then it was the average for armed robbery. He was making it up as he went along, just as he always did. But what if you hadn’t known anything about it beforehand? What if some kid had taken you for a ride and let you do the driving? Well, these were all factors, Numbers agreed. What if you never wanted any trouble? What if you lived alone with your grandmother? What if the prettiest girl in the neighbourhood was your cousin, your best friend and your confidante? What if she was smart and said she saw something in you? What if she had trusted you not to get into trouble any more? Michelle was never in any trouble. She was going places. She said Lamont could come with her. What is the average number of years you would serve if you were someone like that? What if the other two testified on oath that you hadn’t known anything about it? ‘That could be a factor,’ Numbers conceded. Numbers was an idiot. He hadn’t always been an idiot, but by the time Lamont met him, the combined effects of drugs and the beatings he had received in prison had left him overly fond of statistics. But when asked what the chances were that the defence of a black man from the Bronx would be believed, when the two co-accused black men were pleading guilty to armed robbery, Numbers’ eyes seemed suddenly to brim with sentience. They welled up with a momentary understanding. ‘You in trouble, Lamont.’
Now out of prison, Lamont was in his thirties and back living with his grandmother again in Co-op City, the Bronx. Standing in the elevator going down, he smiled to himself. ‘The trick is not to hate yourself,’ they had told him in one of the counselling sessions. No it wasn’t. He had never hated himself and that was not the trick. The trick was to stay calm, and to avoid or outlast the problem. That was how he had survived prison. It was how he had finally found a job and how he would keep that job. It was how he would save for an apartment of his own and it was how he would become some kind of father for his daughter again.
‘Good morning, Mrs Martinez.’ She’d been a neighbour for as long as he could remember.
The express bus to Manhattan was scheduled to come twice an hour, once on the half-hour and then again on the hour. Lamont was there at twenty past, and so was ten minutes early. He stood near Dreiser Loop opposite the shopping centre in Section 1. It was the first stop for people going to Manhattan and the last stop for those coming home. An empty bus with only the driver in it was already on the street a hundred yards behind the bus stop. Its doors were closed while it waited to leave on time. A few women – most, but not all of them, older than Lamont – waited there too. One Hispanic man in a suit paced up and down as he waited. He seemed to be about Lamont’s age. Lamont wondered if he knew him, but was careful not to stare. The man had his back towards Lamont and, anyway, wasn’t keeping still long enough for Lamont to see properly. Lamont looked around the street. On the other side, a group of teenagers were making a noise. There was a paint store there and a ninety-nine cent store where there used to be an Amalgamated Bank. Lamont’s grandmother said that it had moved to Section 4, but she couldn’t remember exactly when. There was no particular reason she should remember that but then, Lamont wondered, what does reason have to do with memory?

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for The Street Sweeper

“[I]t seems somehow fitting that the author of The Street Sweeper, a wonderfully rich, engaging and multilayered new novel about blacks and Jews in Chicago and New York, would hail from Australia. I’ve been a fan of Elliot Perlman’s work since his 1998 novel Three Dollars. That book and his massive Seven Types of Ambiguity (2004) revealed him to be an author of rare erudition and compassion. But The Street Sweeper is his boldest work yet…” – The Washington Post

“In the best kind of books, there is always that moment when the words on the page swallow the world outside — subway stations fly by, errands go un-run, rational bedtimes are abandoned — and the only goal is to gobble up the next paragraph, and the next, and the next… A towering achievement: a strikingly modern literary novel that brings the ugliest moments of 20th-century history to life, and finds real beauty there.” – Entertainment Weekly

"[A] richly woven tale..." — USA Today

"Perlman is a consummate storyteller... The narrative pull is breathtaking.... This stunning novel works, and matters, because of the expert way Perlman has recorded both the agonized howl of the past and plaintive echoes of the present." — San Francisco Chronicle

"[Perlman] brilliantly makes personal both the Holocaust and the civil rights movement, and crafts a moving and literate page-turner." — Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

"Perlman’s long tale, spanning decades, is suspenseful and perfectly told in many voices, without a false note. It deals with big issues of memory, race, human fallibilities and the will to survive against the odds. A keeper: a story that speaks to the simple longing for freedom and peace, and to all the things that get in the way." — Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW

"A master... In his intently detailed, worlds-within-worlds third novel, this discerning and unflinching investigator of moral dilemmas great and small takes on the monstrous horrors of racism in America and the Holocaust... Perlman's compulsively readable wrestle-with-evil saga is intimate and monumental, wrenching and cathartic." — Booklist, STARRED REVIEW

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