“Netherland” and “Let the Great World Spin,” two of the best novels about New York and Sept. 11, were written by the Irish authors Joseph O’Neill and Colum McCann, respectively. So it 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 and, quite probably, the one that will win him a greater following.
“The Street Sweeper” relates the stories of two men whose lives would at first glance seem to have little to do with each other. Lamont Williams is an African American recently released from prison after having served six years for an armed robbery in which he was only tangentially involved. Adam Zignelik, son of a legendary Jewish civil rights lawyer, teaches history at Columbia University, where his professional and personal lives have stalled.
Lamont works a menial, probationary job at a New York hospital, where he befriends an elderly Holocaust survivor who tells him horrifying stories about working in a concentration camp, preparing prisoners for the gas chambers and then disposing of their bodies.
At Columbia, Adam’s friend and immediate superior is Charles McCray, the history department’s first African American chairman, who also happens to be married to Lamont’s cousin, Michelle. Charles’s father, a trailblazing African American attorney and civil rights activist, suggests that Adam try to revive his career by researching the role of black troops in liberating Dachau, a tip that leads him to Chicago. There he discovers a cache of forgotten interviews with Holocaust survivors conducted shortly after the end of World War II.
“The Street Sweeper” is rife with parallels, intersections and coincidences; its crisscrossing plotlines can at times dull the novel’s dramatic impact; and the subplots that Perlman does not satisfactorily resolve leave the impression that the novel has been edited down from a much longer manuscript.
But the story is truly impressive in the breadth of its details. Despite the postmodern trappings of “The Seven Types of Ambiguity,” 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. His writing is particularly captivating when he engages topics that fascinate him, and there are a slew of them, such as the death of Emmett Till, the fight for Brown v. Board of Education and, above all, how the history of the Holocaust is preserved.
At times, Perlman’s enthusiasm to share everything he learned while researching “The Street Sweeper” can lead to some clunky writing, such as when he tries to convert historical information into dialogue. For example, here’s Michelle McCray explaining the Great Migration to her daughter, who has been complaining about having to read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”: “Listen to me. The labor of southern black sharecroppers was always pretty inexpensive, but by the 1940s they’d been priced out of their jobs by machines that could do the work of 50 people per machine. So, looking for work and hope of a new and better life, southern blacks moved north to places like New York and Chicago. That’s a simplified version of it, anyway.”
But that same didacticism underscores the author’s seriousness of purpose. In Holocaust literature lately, there has been a trend toward satire, irony and gimmickry. Perlman wisely eschews all that, knowing that a simple recitation of facts will create a greater impact. “Pay attention to the small details. It is the mark of a professional,” Adam advises his students. And when Perlman follows this dictum, the results are superb. Describing concentration camp prisoners on their way to the gas chamber, he employs simplicity and understatement to powerful effect:
“Then came another five, then another, a carpenter whose wife used to say he worked too much, a tailor came, then a man with a singing voice that all his neighbors had enjoyed since he was a child, a teacher was there who had hoped to be a principal someday, a widow who sewed clothes, a nurse who had had an affair with a patient, a slightly overweight boy of eleven with wavy hair who felt he had never been able to live up to his parents’ expectations, he was also there.”
In passages such as these, Perlman allows the reader to share his simple yet eloquent faith that the best path to mutual understanding between blacks and Jews and perhaps all human beings is to tell one’s own story and to listen to another’s.
Langer is the author of a memoir and four novels, including “The Thieves of Manhattan.”
THE STREET SWEEPER
By Elliot Perlman
Riverhead. 626 pp. $28.95