by Elliot Perlman.
In my post on The Paris Architect, I wondered about the role and appropriate use of the Holocaust in historical fiction. Though Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper contains storylines about New York today, and could be considered better literature than The Paris Architect, I think it still fits that category of “Holocaust fiction.” Perlman weaves together several stories: a young black janitor out on parole after being wrongly convicted in a burglary, a Holocaust survivor now dying from cancer, a Jewish history professor struggling to find inspiration and his black fellow academics, a psychologist in 1940’s Chicago who is the first to interview survivors in the DP camps, and more. The links are fairly obvious early on. The janitor (named Lamont) works in the hospital and befriends the Holocaust survivor (named Mandlebrot), who tells Lamont his whole story. The psychologist once interviewed this same survivor. The Jewish professor (named Adam) discovers the old papers of the psychologist. Adam and Lamont center the book, and several other connecting stories between them eventually bring the two to meet – fleetingly – on a New York City sidewalk. While the segments with Adam and Lamont detailing either the struggles of the social-work systems or academic tenure are compelling, Perlman is strongest in the sections in which characters retell their Holocaust memories. In my educational and career experiences, I’ve ended up reading a lot of material, from memoirs to fiction to historical accounts, on the Holocaust. Some of it, as discussed in the Paris Architect post, can devolve into the maudlin or worse. The Street Sweeper, though, might be an example of Holocaust fiction that conveys the horror with sharpness and depth. In addition to rather graphic descriptions of Mandelbrot’s time in the Sonderkommando (not that the graphicness makes it “good” per se, but can be important educationally), Perlman has nuggets like this:
“Henryk Mandelbrot and the other two Jews who had arrived with him followed the SS guard…there lay a mountain of bodies…Here, Mandelbrot thought, was the end of every slur, racial or religious, every joke, every sneer directed against the Jews. Every time someone harbored the belief…that the Jews, as a people, are dishonest and immoral, that they are avaricious, deceitful, cunning, that they are capitalists, that they are communists, that they are responsible for all the troubles in the world, that they are guilty of deicide, that belief or suspicion adds momentum to a train on a journey of its own; this is where the line finally ends, at this mountain of corpses. The prejudices, the unfounded states of mind, that grow from wariness to dislike to hatred…they all lead to where Henryk Mandelbrot now stood.”
As in this quote, Perlman can border on the didactic and overstated throughout the book. But, as I found in The Paris Architect, a lot of Holocaust fiction can be pretty didactic and overstated. In general, Perlman is less so and more artful than most, and I thought that his stark messaging was well placed.
I initially thought that a major theme of the book would be the ties between the experience of blacks in America and the Holocaust. This wasn’t a theme I was enthused to explore, as I think it is highly problematic for a number of reasons. I think drawing parallels can invite a macabre competition of suffering, and this competition has been used to destructive ends in the recently strained relationships between blacks and Jews in some parts of America.* While comparison of the Holocaust to other horrific events in history can be instructive, too often it is done in the spirit of “universalizing” the Holocaust – which one could argue negates one of the basic uncomfortable truths of the Holocaust, which was that the Jews were singled out.
But I’m not entirely sure of Perlman’s goal with the two main storylines of the black janitor and the Holocaust survivor. At times he seems to be making the point that American racial attitudes have a long way to go, almost making his characters into caricatures of righteous indignation. William McCray, an older black retired lawyer who is a mentor to Adam, at one point takes off about the current Supreme Court:
“I read the decision, I read about the decision, all from my own home…this radical right-wing shift in the balance of the court now makes it the very monster the conservatives elected Bush to create. Now they’ve got it and we’re going to pay; not just African Americans, the whole country. Scalia’s like a junkyard dog. He even attacks Roberts when the two are concurring…Poster boy for the Neo-cons, our Italian friend!….it’s not enough for Clarence Thomas to sell out his own people; he has to go so far as to put on record his character assassination of an honorable man who has the audacity to disagree with him…” The strength of McCray’s tantrum, which goes on for a few pages, actually made me wonder whether the Perlman was mocking his outrage or portraying it seriously.
Other characters offer a different line of thought. Michelle, a black social worker married to one of Adam’s colleagues, wonders
“if she hadn’t chosen the wrong career. Nobody can be asked to display limitless compassion and especially not to people who so often didn’t even heed her advice. She had to stop herself from blaming them. When she had been a student it had been a lot easier to blame history, society, and free market fundamentalism, the federal government, the city and racism. Now it could take all her strength not to shake some of her clients when they came back again and again. She and her husband Charles would go to dinner parties in Westchester, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope and dine with liberal academics, white and black…and she would envy their capacity to continue thinking exactly as she had as a student. Theory always trumped experience at these occasions and she envied the time they seemed to have to find peer-reviewed evidence to support their long-held views.”
Regardless of what Perlman is trying to say about the current state of affairs for American blacks, it does seem that he would have Mandelbrot and Lamont find a common bond over a history of discrimination. Mandelbrot tells Lamont that before the war started, he had lots of friends:
“ ‘They all Jews?’
‘No. I was like a leader of a group of boys, all them of Polish, not Jews, except me.’
‘You’re Polish too thought, right?’
‘You are black, Mr. Lamont, yes?’
‘You are American too, yes?’
A stronger point about the shared history of discrimination is made when the psychologist, who is Jewish, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism “even” in America:
“I know America is not Europe…I came here already qualified…I made this known when I applied twice to get into the doctoral program at the University of Chicago and was rejected. I made it known again when I tried once at Northwestern and was rejected. I tried again at Northwestern, only this time I made it a point on the application to tell them I was Episcopalian. Now I have a PhD from Northwestern University. Only one variable changed in the four applications. But this is not Europe, I know.”
The various plotlines – Lamont (trying to keep his job on parole and gain custody of his daughter) and Adam (commitment issues with his girlfriend and needing career inspiration) and their various friends and family – are each intriguing, but I feel Perlman left too many threads untied and inserted too much random material. For example, Michelle (the social worker) and her husband are found to be having some vague marital difficulties. But these are never explained or explored, despite that they inadvertently give several main characters considerable distress. The narrative seems to swing between too vague and too overstated. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if Perlman just randomly decided to have black and Jewish characters, without any desire to draw comparison between their histories and stories. Other times I felt I was in one of Adam’s Columbia University classes, having morality delivered lecture-style (such as the fact that Lamont is just a good guy who happened to be involved with the wrong crowd, and can’t catch a break since. Or that one of Mandelbrot’s recollections includes various people shouting the phrase ‘Tell everyone what happened here’ about a dozen different times, ‘as an echoing refrain’.) Perhaps there are just one too many storylines to make them all come together in the end. Or perhaps Perlman didn’t want them to really all come together, but just touch lightly on each other, to provide fodder for comparison. With so much ambiguity – whether Perlman intended that or not – this would be a really fun book to read in a group.
I don’t have a definitive answer as to what makes something “good” Holocaust fiction or not, or even precisely how to have the discussion. I do think it is very important to at least think about what it means to say something like, “I’m reading this novel about the Holocaust right now. It’s really good!” Do some, perhaps, enjoy the emotional catharsis from reading about something like that and is that okay? Can one enjoy a novel about the Holocaust? (and again, from my post about The Paris Architect – is that different from enjoying a movie where all the Nazis get killed at the end?)
Certainly, if we don’t have and read novels and fiction about the Holocaust, I think a large educational resource will be lost. So they are important, and necessary, and helpful. I only mean to ask that, when we do read “Holocaust fiction” of any sort, we think not only about the novel itself but how we will talk about the novel.
Pearlman’s unique take on Holocaust fiction is the inclusion of American race relations, assumingly as a way of warning by comparison. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really agree with that line of thought, but black-Jewish relations in general could be an intriguing, if sensitive, topic. I don’t know of many other books that explore this – Mary Glickman’s Home in the Morning is really the only one that comes to mind. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Perlman delve into the general topic more deeply and thoroughly in Street Sweeper. It certainly could lead to some excellent discussion.
* The subject of black-Jewish relations in America is a complicated one. Many Jews were involved with the civil rights movement during the late 50’s and 60’s. But since then there have been signals that things have changed, from the 1968 New York teachers’ union strike anti-semitic chants to the 1991 Crown Heights riots to Louis Farrakhan to things like this video (http://www.momentmag.com/rappers-delight-a-jewish-lawyer/). This article has some good suggestions for further reading on possible theories for the tension.