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E. B. Lee
Clean Sweep A Novel
E. B. Lee, author

Clean Sweep is contemporary fiction that personalizes the lives of New York City street homeless and exposes the strength and vulnerabilities of compassion and human connection. When a retired advertising executive finds the dead body of a homeless woman on a Manhattan sidewalk, she is compelled to bring others off the street. Working on an Outreach team, she faces her own painful past, erratic behavior of her new Outreach partner, and many invisible barriers silently chaining homeless lives to the city’s gritty sidewalks. After facing her biggest personal loss, she makes her biggest impact helping those most in need. A bittersweet and heartfelt story.

Lee's account of homeless life on the street in New York City is compassionate, brutally honest, and unsentimental. Told through the eyes of Carli Morris, an alias used by a woman who wanted to give back after selling her business, Clean Sweep weaves a personal mystery plot together with insights about how small gestures and consistency of behavior can make a difference for the homeless. Carli quickly moves beyond simply volunteering at the soup kitchen when she meets Grant, a charismatic volunteer for the shelter Four Bridges, dedicated to helping each street person one-on-one by meeting them at their level.

The narrative takes a personal turn when Carli starts to believe that Grant might be her long-lost brother Henry. Meanwhile, Carli grows fond of finely sketched Four Bridges characters like Cedric the can collector, Wilson, who may have been a perfume maker, and Vera, who stays in her spot after she was evicted from her old building she lived in with her husband. As that crew helps their friends dodge police sweeps, Carli notices Grant's behavior becoming increasingly erratic and works on paintings for a gallery show, discovering that her new passion has a powerful effect on her art.

Lee expertly creates vivid portraits of each character's flaws, weaknesses, and ultimate humanity. The small triumphs that give the narrative its power feel earned precisely because this cast experiencing homelessness are treated as human rather than objects of pity or disgust. Neither Carli nor Grant are presented as saints, and the latter's final fate is devastating; Carli sometimes feels less fully formed than the others, but eventually comes into sharper focus. Ultimately, it's a story about the profound effect of hidden trauma, especially for those who feel isolated. Lee reminds readers of serious fiction that there’s hope for those whom society has rejected, as long as we work for it.

Takeaway: A moving account of the invisible lives of people living on the street, filled with compassion.

Great for fans of: Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life, Richard Wagamese’s Ragged Company.

Production grades
Cover: C
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B