Australian Literature, Book review, Literary criticism

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman 

Elliot Perlman pic

Australian writer, Elliot Perlman

Extraordinary. This is a word that we use too much. In fact, we use it so much that we have elided its pronunciation from ek-stra-OR-din-ai- ree to ek-STROR-din-ree; four syllables from the original six. English-speakers do this because, fundamentally, English speakers are lazy; and laziness elicits contractions. Therefore, the fact that this word has had two syllables, a third of it, elided from its pronunciation proves that we use this word a lot. I want to use this word, not only in its original six-syllable pronunciation but in its original compound word construction, before it became a word: its beginnings when the prefix ‘extra’, meaning ‘outside’ was joined to the word ‘ordinary’ meaning ‘normal’: outside normal, or not normal.

This is an extra-ordinary novel.

Imagine three novels of personal discovery by characters of varying nationalities, creeds, and circumstances – Polish, Australian, American, Jewish, African American, prisoner, ex-prisoner, displaced person, kidnapped child, holocaust survivor, trapped husband, abandoned wife, ghetto dweller, historian, oven-stoker, psychologist, and soldier  – written by a writer who is fundamentally obsessed with what connects one person to another regardless of time, place, and belief; and who advocates that a connection, whether it be via six or thirty six degrees of separation is still a connection; who then knits them together as one. This ‘knitting together’ is not so much a writer’s skill; it’s more an editor’s, but the idea of it, the concept certainly is Perlman’s.

But there’s more to a book that its contents. One of the other things a book is, is its narrator: who tells it? Usually, but not always, a novel’s narrator is a third-person, unnamed, genderless voice that is all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like. In The Street Sweeper Perlman proves this is all undoubtedly true. It takes Adam Zignelik, a major character, 25 pages to wake up. Don’t think this is indulgent or dull: far from it. In the moment this happens in real time we learn, via the Herculean and history-obsessed narrator, about Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black boy from Chicago, who, in 1955, while travelling to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, is tortured and murdered for sassing a white woman; about what happened at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957 to a fifteen year old black girl, Elizabeth Eckford; about the reasons, racism,  and inconsistencies of the American Civil War, 1861 -1865; about what happened at the Coloured Orphan Asylum on the corner of 43rd Street and 5th Avenue in New York in the summer of 1863; about who is sleeping next to him as he’s waking, Diana; and even what will happen to her a couple of weeks after Adam wakes crying. Perlman doesn’t allow his narrator to tell you what happened, he shows you what happened; he takes you there. This is fresh history. But history that Adam Zigalick doesn’t know anything about, but could.

History is what excites Perlman and he explodes the idea that history is only a story that you’re not in.

            Listen carefully. A young man – a very young man – lived in a house with his elderly father whom he loved very much. His father had grown unwell to the point of being bed-ridden. The young man shared the responsibility of taking care of the ailing father both with his mother and with a long-time and loyal servant of the family. . . He took pleasure in this even though, being a serious student at the time, he might have been forgiven for begrudging time away from studying in furtherance of his own future. It was all the more remarkable given the added stresses on him as a newly married man living upstairs in the family home with his even younger pregnant wife. . . Is any of this true? How can you know? How can you possibly know? I haven’t given you enough information even to ask better, more sensible, more meaningful questions. The better question is “Having heard what I told you about the young man, is it likely to be true?” Let me suggest these categories: true, untrue, likely to be true, unlikely to be true, and, there isn’t enough known to answer likely or unlikely.

His novelistic techniques are simple but effective. To flavour the testimony of a holocaust survivor, a Pole and obviously not a native-English speaker, he does as little as necessary, a little word-choice ‘mistake’:

I fell asleep in their second floor what was not yet finished,’ Mr Mandelbrot continued. ‘The cold come in through the missing windows but I was exhausted and fell asleep very quickly. The next thing what I knew was the SA man standing over me in the dark.

The use of ‘what’ not ‘that’ gives Mr Mandlebrot’s voice all the foreignness it needs.

Perlman has Adam discuss things in his head, not with himself, but with Diane, his partner who loves him but who he forced out of his life through his own inadequacies, fears, and selfishness: dialogue is far more interesting to read than blank prose:

He opened the mirror cupboard and found the comb that Diane had left still entwined with strands of her hair and he wondered how he became the man who held that comb.

            ‘So that’s it, is it?’ Diane whispered to him in the middle of the night.

            ‘I looked everywhere I could, did everything I could do . . . everything I could think of.’

            ‘Check them, Adam.’

            ‘Will you forgive me . . . for what I’ve done  . . . to us?’

            ‘Sweetheart, check your notes.’

            Adam went to his desk as he’d heard her direct him to do and started flicking through the pages.’

These ‘conversations’ not only keep the reader rooting for Diane and Adam’s possible reconciliation (no spoilers here) but also furthers the plot; not usual for thought bubbles.

Sensitive men, she had always felt, were intimidated by her looks, thinking that rejection was so likely that, as rich as the prize might be, they were too flawed, too certain to fail, to do anything but admire from a distance. (And then from the narrator, but in light of what this character had then thought, a little use of free indirect discourse) Men like these pursued women just slightly prettier than plain and then married whichever of them they were next to when suddenly the music stopped to announce that graduate school was over.

            Immaculate, complex sentences with unusually expressed insight topped with a little poetry.  This is classic Perlman.

Ultimately this book is about history and, more specifically, truth even in the little things:

It was the honey-skinned woman with jet-black straight hair, the student who no longer attended his ‘What is History?’ lectures; the one who had correctly guessed Gandhi. True? It was unlikely to be true but beneath the palm fronds as the past and the present wilted, beneath the candlelight where shadows snuff the sidle of evening, beneath the tropical motifs, thatch-clad walls and thud of the speakers there to help drown out people’s private internal, soon-to-be-publicly-misunderstood celebration of themselves, it was true.  

There are no walk-ons in this story: a passing student has a goal, purpose, a history.

Elliot Perlman is a Melbourne barrister but has published three novels, Three Dollars (1998) which won the Age Book of the Year, and was adapted for film in 2005; his second novel Seven Types of Ambiguity (2004) was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award and the television adaptation will screen in Australia in 2017; and his third, The Street Sweeper (2011) was long-listed for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award. His short story collection The Reasons I won’t be Coming came out in 1999; the title story won the Age Short Story Award in 1994.

The Street Sweeper tells the stories, linked web-like through time and place, of a young African American man, Lamont Williams, and Adam Zignelik, a Jewish Australian historian, both living in Chicago and both trying to get their lives back on track: Lamont, after an unjust 6-year stint in prison, and Adam after his personal relationship and career starts to unravel.

Warning! The scenes set in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 are harrowing, detailed, vivid, and extremely disturbing. However, this book is also about memory, testimony, and what should not be forgotten; skipping these scenes is possible but not in the spirit of the work.

And the title? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

This is enlightening, intriguing, sometimes horrifying, but satisfying reading. Highly recommended.

You can get the hardback, paperback, and eBook editions here.

 

 

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