Author gives voice to the dispossessed

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 20, 2012

“The Street Sweeper,” by Elliot Perlman. Riverhead Books. 2012. $28.95.
By Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — The truth: In 1946, a Jewish immigrant to America who had once studied under psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, living in Chicago and teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology, traveled to Europe on a grant and interviewed a number of Holocaust survivors who were at the time living in the Displaced Persons camps.
He recorded these interviews on an early, ungainly, wire recording device. For years afterwards he transcribed these recordings, with the first eight transcriptions published in 1949 in a book titled “I Did Not Interview the Dead.” This man’s name was David Boder.
“The trick is not to hate yourself.” These are the words a young, skinny, black man, Lamont Williams, most remembers from his six years in prison; six years wasted because he innocently allowed his friend and a friend of his friend to bum a ride to the liquor store, which the two then robbed. Outside now, with his life destroyed, with his now 8-year-old daughter gone, living with his grandmother who once raised him, he has found a job in a pilot project for ex-cons at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He is a janitor.
On the fourth day of a six-month probationary period, he finds a patient in a wheelchair left outside by Patient Services, and the man wants to be returned to his room. Against all hospital regulations, Lamont Williams returns the patient to his room on the ninth floor of the hospital. The patient’s name is Henryk Mandelbot, and he is a Holocaust survivor.
About the same time, in a different part of Manhattan, a young, white, Jewish professor of history at Columbia University is losing his job. Adam Zegnelik has not been granted tenure; he has only one book published in five years at Columbia and has no earthly idea where to go now with his research. Even his contemporary and friend, the chair of the department Dr. Charles McCray, cannot save his position, a fact that Charles’ wife Michelle understands but is not happy with, and a fact that Charles’ father William does not understand at all.
Adam’s father, who is deceased, once worked with Williams for the Legal Defense Fund, and Williams is determined to help Adam when he suggests as a research area the possibility there were black liberators at the death camp of Auschwitz.
In New York City, at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a young black female oncologist named Dr. Washington is treating a patient by the name of Henryk Mandelbot. She often notices a man from Building Services who will visit Mandelbot. But, she doesn’t really see him, because she is a doctor and he is a janitor.
In Chicago, at Illinois Institute of Technology, deep in the bowels of the library, there are boxes that contain the files and transcripts of one Dr. Henry Border. There are other boxes that contain mysterious rolls of old wire recordings, never transcribed. Somewhere on campus there is even an old wire recording machine. It is possible that these old records might contain information on black liberators of Auschwitz.
These diverse characters and others are brought together in “The Street Sweeper.” In a re-creation of true events of the 20th century, author Elliot Perlman has crafted the best literary novel of the year in his 617-page epic.
Traveling from the Holocaust through the Civil Rights Movement to contemporary America, the novel visits and revisits the dispossessed people of then and now as they struggle toward a distant hope and, yes, try not to hate themselves in the process. Though Adam and Lamont are fictional characters, the vast majority of the players in “The Street Sweeper” are in fact based on real people. Some, like Thurgood Marshall and Wilhelm Wundt, travel through the book under their real names. Other characters appear prominently under names parallel to the real life people they represent, including Dr. Henry Border, the fictional version of Dr. David Boder, and Henryk Mandelbot, the fictional character of Henryk Mandelbaum.
Perlman engaged in extensive research, including interviews, in the writing of this magnificent book. Though horrific and heart-rending in places, as any accurate novel of these historical events must be, the book is not morose, and it does not ever bog down in rhythm or storyline. The reader cannot help but be enraptured as the primary characters pursue rebuilding their lives, as they hope for tomorrow and discover the hopes for tomorrow that others had who came before them.
Perlman constantly alternates sub-chapters between the characters, moving the story forward at a steady pace, as he builds to a wonderful, well-crafted and happy dramatic conclusion. The reader is never let down, and at the end cannot help but be hungry for more. “The Street Sweeper” demands a place on the shelf of serious literary fiction readers, if they can let it out of their hands at the end of their reading.
“The onlookers had no idea what it was that had led to the strange convergence of these three diverse individuals and the little girl. But if they had known the people they were looking at, if they had known where they had come from, if they had known their histories, if they’d had even an inkling of the events the historian, the street sweeper with the menorah and the oncologist had knowledge of, if they had known the whole story of everything that had got these three people to that block at that time, they might well have felt compelled to tell everyone what happened here. Tell everyone what happened here.”
Reviewer’s note: As is often the case when I read a truly great novel, I want to know more about what really happened. In the case of “The Street Sweeper,” I became obsessed with Dr. David Boder, the real life Dr. Henry Border. Boder’s book, “I Did Not Interview the Dead,” published by University of Illinois Press in 1949 and long out of print, is available from the UNC, NC State, and Duke libraries by interlibrary loan. The UNC Charlotte library has available for checkout “The Wonder of Their Voices: The 1946 Holocaust Interviews of David Boder,” by Alan Rosen, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. All of these institutions facilitated my obsession, and I thank them.