The Street Sweeper reminds me, organizationally, of looking at the back of a piece of embroidery. There are plots and story-lines running everywhere, and at first it feels chaotic. However, by the end, you are looking in awe at a beautifully-finished piece of story-telling. This is an awesome book, well worth the time commitment required for its 600+ pages.
The book is a novel, but it packs in a huge amount of 20th-century history. The story follows two young men, both living in New York, both representing to various degrees the past of their people; however, the plot also follows for periods of time a Jewish professor who claimed to be Episcopalian in order to get a job in 1940s Chicago, a young Jewish girl in Poland in the years just before WW2 and then later in the camps, a beautiful black social worker whose marriage is crumbling, and many many more.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Lamont Williams, a young black man recently released from prison after serving his sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Lamont is a fundamentally decent man who more than anything lacks self-confidence. He lives with his grandmother, and wants desperately to find his daughter, now 8, whom he hasn’t seen since she was 2. He has been given an opportunity—a job in Building Services at Sloan-Kettering Cancer hospital, where he is on probation for six months. During his first week on the job, a patient who’s been left out on the sidewalk insists that Lamont help him return to his room. Lamont does so, and a reluctant friendship springs up between the two. The patient, a survivor of Auschwitz, insists on telling Lamont his story, and has Lamont repeat it until he has it memorized, learning the difference between death camps and concentration camps, and about inside uprisings at Auschwitz. Shortly before his death, he gives Lamont a present, and you don’t need the gift of prophecy to foretell that will spell trouble for him.
The other main character is Adam Zegnelik, whose career as a history professor at Columbia is on rocky ground, and who is struggling out of the great shadow cast by his father, a Jewish lawyer who was hugely instrumental in the civil rights movement. When we first meet him, Adam is lying awake at night reliving moments in black American history—the desegregation of schools and how terrifying it was for the first black students in white schools, the 1963 church bombing that killed 4 black girls, and more. He is paralyzed by the future, and breaks up with his long-term girlfriend because he knows he won’t make tenure. His life turns around when he discovers a huge cache of first-person interviews with Holocaust survivors in refugee camps.
“Tell everyone what happened here,” says one of the women. “Tell everyone what happened here,” says Lamont at one point after he is false accused, yet again, of crimes he hasn’t committed. The Street Sweeper moves between vantage points and times, but it is ultimately a story of connection, of human beings, of unimaginable crimes but also of small beauties and justice. It’s an incredible book.
Elizabeth enjoys learning history through novels. This one made her thankful for the times and place in which she lives. Learn more at her blog Planet Nomad.