An expertly told novel of life in immigrant America—and of the terrible events left behind in the old country.
Australian novelist Perlman (Seven Types of Ambiguity, 2004, etc.) seems perfectly at home in the streets of New York, with all their raucous diversity. Some of his characters are less at home; the story opens with an ugly clash between a Jamaican bus driver and a rider from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, each steadily refusing to understand the other. Perlman’s premise—that a Holocaust survivor might find common cause with a person suffering discrimination in this country—isn’t entirely original, but no matter; he spins a fine story. Lamont, supposedly rehabilitated after time in jail, has lost everything, but thanks to a trial program, he’s found a job as a janitor at a hospital. “He liked being able to ask someone from another department a question by simply picking up the internal phone, dialing the other person’s extension and beginning with, ‘This is Lamont Williams from Building Services,’ ” writes Perlman matter-of-factly. It is perhaps not to Lamont’s advantage, being on probation and so fresh out of the pokey, to meet an old patient who urges him, “To hell with the rules.” The old man has reason to suspect notions of law and order, as Lamont gradually learns; he’s nursing powerful secrets. Such stuff is the stock in trade of an untenured history professor who is looking at the role of African-American soldiers in the liberation of the Nazi death camps. A step ahead of being fired himself, he finds a lifetime’s worth of study in what he learns. Perlman’s long tale, spanning decades, is suspenseful and perfectly told in many voices, without a false note. It deals with big issues of memory, race, human fallibilities and the will to survive against the odds.
A keeper: a story that speaks to the simple longing for freedom and peace, and to all the things that get in the way.