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How Can Such a Flawed Book Be So Powerful?

March 1, 2014

The Street Sweeper by Elliot PerlmanElliot Perlman, The Street Sweeper, 2012

A puzzle: as I read the The Street Sweeper I noticed many examples of sloppy writing the editor had missed. Reading further I wondered if it had been edited at all. Why then could I not stop reading? Why do I believe it’s the best book I’ve read in the past year?

Several scathing reviews have catalogued the flaws: awkward syntax, overuse of adverbs and cliché, strained metaphors, too much repetition, a lack of conciseness with long, baggy sentences that lose their way, story strands that could have been deleted, and excessive didacticism, especially when the author expounds history through his characters. The New York Times reviewer said that, suitably annotated, it could serve as a “textbook on how not to write fiction.”

Yet while I noticed the flaws, I found myself ignoring them, because Perlman’s characters and story had hijacked my attention. Why was this so?

I won’t describe the plot because it has been outlined by many (mainly positive) reviewers, such as Whispering Gums. My interest is in identifying what makes this book so powerful despite its flaws.

Firstly, Perlman’s characters come to life. Each one has their own distinctive voice that carries their personality. The veteran of the African American civil rights struggle, now an old man, speaks forcefully as he tries to get others to do the right thing. His son is a professor at Columbia, and his manner betrays his weariness under the weight of administrative work, family obligations and his father’s expectations. There are dozens of other characters whose way of speaking tells us much about them. Perlman obviously cares deeply for them, and so do I.

I wanted to follow these people, find out what happens to them. One of the central characters, a historian in crisis because his career has stalled, begins a research project to find out if African American troops were involved in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and I found the twists and turns of his progress gripping. I ached for the other central character, an African American janitor in a hospital, a decent man to whom bad things happen. I wanted to find out how his life would turn out. I wanted to know more about his friendship with a patient, a Holocaust survivor who is telling the janitor his story.

The novel consists of many strands, spread over time from the 1930s to the present. Perlman skilfully interweaves these strands into an organic whole. As the novel progresses, connections between the characters in the different stories emerge. Some reviews, even positive ones, have criticised the implausibility of such coincidences. For me, these hidden connections work well, and make a complex plot even more engrossing. This is Perlman helping us to see that we are all connected, as a counterpoint to the “virus” of racism, the main theme of the novel. As the historian says, “you never know the connections between things, people, places, ideas … how close you are to people who seem so far from you.”

Characters, story and the way the story is told all pulled me in. But the main quality that engaged me is the way the novel honours “those who came before us.” Several characters are forced to become Sonderkommandos at Auschwitz, Jewish prisoners who were selected to guide new arrivals to the gas chambers and then dispose of their bodies, thousands at a time. This is the hardest part of the book to read, but the way Perlman depicts these hellish scenes kept me reading. With simple prose he evokes the true horror of that place by individualising, over several pages, the people moving to slaughter:

Then came another five, then another, a carpenter whose wife used to say he worked too much, a tailor came, then a man with a singing voice that all his neighbours had enjoyed since he was a child, a teacher was there who had hoped to be a principal someday, a widow who sewed clothes, a nurse who had had an affair with a patient, a slightly overweight boy of eleven with wavy hair who felt he had never been able to live up to his parents’ expectations, he was also there.

After reading this, we can no longer see Auschwitz victims as just an amorphous mass. But Perlman also corrects the idea that people did not resist, by relating the gripping story of an uprising by Sonderkommandos, who had slowly accumulated the means to rebel, mainly by arranging for the women who worked in the munitions factory to smuggle gunpowder to them. The uprising destroyed one of the buildings housing gas chambers and ovens. This episode is based on real events, with fictional characters based on real people.

The Street Sweeper is an epic achievement. If it had been skilfully edited, it might have even more powerful.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ritamay Roberts permalink
    March 1, 2014 12:38 pm

    Thank you for this review, Bryce. I agree that the depiction of individuals in this horrific story is critical to greater understanding and empathy. It creates a sobering and enlightening aspect of their suffering. It helps people to understand and to remember.

    • Bryce permalink*
      March 1, 2014 4:06 pm

      Thanks Ritamay. It’s hard to face the reality of the Holocaust, but I think necessary, both for our own self-understanding and to remember those who suffered.

  2. March 1, 2014 12:49 pm

    Great review Bryce … The book really gets you in, doesn’t it. Perlman has such warmth to his writing. I also felt it had some flaws though don’t recollect feeling quite as strongly about the writing ones as you do, but it is such a good read. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the link.

    • Bryce permalink*
      March 1, 2014 4:11 pm

      Yes, Perlman does have great warmth to his writing. He’s very good at depicting good, decent people (who are often in bad trouble). Martin Amis says writing decent characters is more of a challenge than creating evil ones, but I think decency is where Perlman’s gift lies.

      • March 1, 2014 9:25 pm

        That’s an interesting comment by Amis. So often I hear people say that a character is too good, can’t believe them (and then others say they don’t like a book because they don’t like the characters). I guess it could be hard to write decent people who are also interesting, but I agree that Perlman definitely does it.

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