Leah Greenblatt
January 04, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Street Sweeper

Current Status
In Season
Elliot Perlman

We gave it an A-

In the best kind of books, there is always that moment when the words on the page swallow the world outside — subway stations fly by, errands go un-run, rational bedtimes are abandoned — and the only goal is to gobble up the next paragraph, and the next, and the next.

It happens nearly 200 pages into Elliot Perlman’s epic, astonishing third novel, which may sound like an almost ludicrous wait. But even before the sudden dazzle of the 400-plus pages that follow, The Street Sweeper is still very good — an engaging minor-key tale of two broken, seemingly unrelated men. One is a Bronx-bred ex-con named Lamont Williams, struggling to hold on to a hospital janitorial job and find the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was a toddler; the other, Australian expat Adam Zignelik, a Columbia professor in his late 30s who can?t seem to stop sabotaging his relationship and his last shot at tenure. But when Lamont befriends an elderly cancer patient with a telltale string of numbers tattooed on his forearm, and Adam makes a life-altering discovery in the dusty archives of a long-forgotten academic at a third-rate Midwestern university, the book blazes into Technicolor. Sweeper, like Perlman’s acclaimed, similarly sprawling 2004 novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, toggles between an ever-widening cast of characters, sometimes with dizzying quickness. And as it winds down, he begins to lean too heavily on a kind of soft-focus sentiment and coincidence that his fiercely compelling narrative doesn’t need. Still, what remains is a towering achievement: a strikingly modern literary novel that brings the ugliest moments of 20th-century history to life, and finds real beauty there. A-

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