My own taste in books is a bit eclectic - so I don't fully trust my judgement on that score (although, to follow on from my last post, bookgroups have help tremendously in improving my judgment). This is one of the reasons that we don't typically sell lots of copies of one particular book, and a bestseller for us (outside of an author event) might be in the high teens. I'm often amazed to hear when booksellers have shifted hundreds of copies of a particular title - surely that book isn't appropriate for many of them?
Which brings us to The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman.
First, a warning: everything that follows should be read knowing that - as far as I am concerned - this is the finest book I have read since opening Mostly Books nearly six years ago. This makes me hellishly biased, and this book is definitely not for everyone. In fact, a certain type of reader might be broken in two by some of the writing.
The Street Sweeper starts off in contemporary America, and we meet a group of characters who are - or become - intertwined over seventy odd years. Lamont Williams (the eponymous Street Sweeper, though we have a long way to go until his employment situation takes that particular turn) is a down-on-his-luck African American, cripplingly lacking in self-esteem, and a constant victim of disadvantage, knock-backs and one monumental incidence of injustice which finds him on probation, newly released from prison, emptying bins and sweeping up at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
At the same time, we are introduced to Adam Zignelik, a historian whose tenured position at Cornell University is about to fizzle out thanks to his inate self-pitying and inactivity. He's about to unilaterally and cruelly dump his long-term Diana into the bargain. This is despite the intervention (or lack of it) of his long-time friend, and Professor of the department, Charles McCray. Charles has his own problems, being the son of the famous William McCray, a civil rights lawyer instrumental in helping to pass groundbreaking legislation in the 1960s, and who still has the passion and anger to berate his son for seemingly dissemble under the political pressures of his position at Cornell.
About one-third of the way into the book, something happens in the US justice system that is devastating to one of these men. The fact that the reader is just as upset - and I felt anger and sadness - is testament to Perlman's incredible skill in delivering you quickly, but thoroughly, through 130 or so pages which serve as an American civil rights history primer. Taken through key events in the struggle, jumping between three generations of black Americans, you feel the anger that they feel, and you realise the implications. Thom Yorke might have summed it up: “It’s the devil’s way now...because you have not been paying attention.”
At this point, the author is about to pull the mother of all direction changes on you. Unaware that your anger, shock and sadness are as nothing to what is about to come, you have only been splashing about in the shallows of injustice and racial prejudice, being stiffened and toughened up for what is to come. Perlman is about to take you very deep indeed into the dark heart of human experience.
The route Perlman takes is through the two main characters – Adam and Lamont. Railing at his own powerlessness, and frustrated by his son's perceived failings, William McCray recruits Adam into a personal project, to find primary historical evidence to justify a rumour: that African Americans were involved in the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp at the end of World War II.
In parallel to this, Lamont has struck up an unlikely friendship with a dying cancer patient, Henryk Mandelbrot, following a piece of characteristic unselfishness whilst on probation. Henryk has a story to tell from his own experiences during the war, and he decides that Lamont will be the one to hear it – and most importantly, remember it.
Adam stumbles on the story of Henry Border, a psychologist who travelled to Europe immediately after the war ended, and who - armed with one of the first portable recording devices - turns out to have recorded some of the first examples of oral history: the stories of Jewish survivors from the Holocaust.
This is powerful, genius writing of the highest order, because of the scope and ambition of what Perlman succeeds in pulling off. Everyone's story intertwines and connects by the end in ways that never seem contrived, and which Forster would have appreciated. The style of writing is one of rhythm and repetition, lulling you at times even though you are aware of the horrors down the line. We follow multiple timelines without distraction, as stories of characters throughout the 20th century collide and break apart.
For almost all the characters in the book, the clock is ticking: for Lamont, his probation and hunt for his daughter, for Adam, his tenure and a chance to atone with Diana, for Henryk, his life. And, in the background, the knowledge that much of the first-hand experience of what happened in places like Auschwitz is passing away. This makes the book - despite the length and difficult subject matter - nothing less than compelling. This book sucks you in and you have to get to the end. I suspect the author planned it that way, but - bloody hell - he must have edited it to within an inch of his life. No wonder if took him six years to write.
It is a book that gets to the very heart of history, and what history and stories mean. In that regard it is different to, say, The Emperor of Lies, and it will be interesting to read what historians such as Simon Schama make of the book. Schama criticised Lies in the strongest of terms, condemning the fictionalising of the Holocaust. We read Sem-Sandberg's book for our bookgroup last year, and the main criticism of it would seem to be that it simply rewrote the historical record as fiction - rather than using it as a backdrop to explore wider issues - which is one of the jobs of fiction in the first place, and why many people read.
Unlike The Emperor of Lies, there is nothing gratuitous in this book (Schama's main criticism of that book). One of Perlman's special talents is to tell you just enough in the context of the story. Inside Auschwitz though, this 'just enough' is almost too much. There is one single paragraph describing an act of such monstrous barbarity that I haven't been able to forget it - and doubt I ever will.
A few pages is all Perlman needs in a ghetto, as an intellectual desperately documents what is slowly happening to is people – and the first rumours of exterminations begin to come in. This one vignette says more about the state of life in the ghetto than huge chunks of Sandberg. Similarly, there is something about secularisation on about 128 that seems to argue more powerfully for it than in Alain de Botton’s recent book. This is intellectual writing with an anger and a moral force that is very difficult to resist.
But a book to recommend? A 'Mostly Books' book? I would say yes, but you will need courage to do so. It is a book that changes you, no question. But a book that offers a great deal of comfort and hope - and that is how I recommend it to you. As Adam Zignelik says "History can provide comfort in difficult or even turbulent and traumatic times...it can help to know we've made it through more than one dark age [and[ it's a way of honouring those who came before us...It's the best proof that we mattered."
The Street Sweeper is by Elliot Perlman, and is published by Faber and Faber. It's £14.99 in paperback. And we would be delighted to send you a copy...