The Street Sweeper

Written by Elliot Perlman
Review by Jessica Brockmole

Adam Zignelik, a history professor at Columbia studying the beginnings of the civil rights movement, is looking for a new research topic to help secure tenure. A World War II veteran suggests that Adam look into the stories of black soldiers who were involved in the liberation of Dachau. The search leads him to the dusty basement of a university library where the boxes contain not stories of black troops, but the first recorded interviews with Holocaust survivors, taken only months after their release, while they are recovering in Displaced Persons Camps.

At the same time that Adam is searching, Lamont Williams, a recently released convict in a work probation program, befriends an elderly man who was a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau and learns his story.

I have to admit, this story took a while to get off the ground. About two hundred and fifty pages of a while. Once it did, though, the pace picked up. Adam and Lamont’s searches are cut with scenes from the past, from the psychology professor who traveled through Europe recording the interviews in 1946 to the prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau. To me, the past scenes were more compelling and vivid than the contemporary ones, sometimes, as in the death camp scenes, brutally so. I did feel Perlman made some puzzling stylistic choices. The voice was fairly omniscient throughout, but pulled back even further from the reader near to the end, lessening the emotional impact for me. And the quick scenes changes gave the book a sometimes choppy feel. With such an intriguing premise, I wanted to like this book. But the slow beginning, unresolved ending, and the occasional emotional distance made it not work for me.