The historian who has lost his way at the beginning of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper might take solace in his own story, in which an academic’s legacy is rescued and an innocent man is vindicated, as both men are awash in uncertainty about their lives. After serving time for armed robbery, Lamont Williams hopes his probationary job as a janitor in a Manhattan hospital will give him the stability he needs to get an apartment and locate his long-lost daughter. His willingness to pick up extra duties leads him to cross paths with a lonely cancer patient who is mysteriously urgent about his need to fill Lamont in on his childhood in Poland. Across town, Adam Zignelik, teaching history at Columbia, has given up on getting tenure and uses his forthcoming unemployment as a pretext for breaking up with his long-term girlfriend, Diana. Out of politeness, he plans a trip to Chicago to check out a research topic recommended by an old friend, but when he discovers a cache of recorded interviews with Holocaust survivors, it reinvigorates him to investigate its unlikely source.
Closer to a whodunit than a philosophical exploration, The Street Sweeper uses the hidden connection between Adam and Lamont, a familiar-enough device, as a red herring to cloak its other secrets. The gimmick offers Perlman the time to build his case for revelations to come, while fleshing out minor characters like Lamont’s cousin Michelle, whose ambivalence about how to help him reflects the indifference he encounters without generalizing him. Still, setting all these characters into place for their role later on in the book, Perlman elaborates more than he should on distractions like Adam’s habit of speaking to Diana in his head, adding more tedium than background for his psychological state.
The scenes where this accumulation of detail reaps its reward are justly fulfilling, as the oral history Adam discovers finds a modern-day echo in Lamont’s willingness to hear what turns out to be a testimony of forgotten wartime trauma. By emphasizing the retelling of this story, The Street Sweeper integrates its own lessons into the plot, underlining the importance of its view on history that doesn’t rely on lectures.