“The Pawnbroker” by Edward Lewis Wallant is a gritty and unflinching portrayal of a Holocaust survivor and his utter inability to function in society. It was one of the earliest pieces of post-Holocaust fiction, published in 1961.
Sol Nazerman was his family’s lone survivor of the concentration camps. After he lost his wife and children, he made his way to America. Sol, now 45, lives with his sister, Bertha, her husband, Selig, and their children, Joan and Morton, in Mount Vernon, a suburb of New York City. Bertha and family rely on Sol for his money; he only wishes to have a roof over his head and to be left alone.
Sol is the proprietor of a pawnshop in Harlem and for a shady character named Murillo. At the pawnshop, Sol sees an influx of down-on-their-luck, mostly black customers, many of whom are desperate to pawn goods for a quick dollar or two. Regulars patronize the store, bringing with them not only stolen or worthless goods to sell, but stories of despair. Some customers are prostitutes, some are junkies.
Sol resents his customers for their own hopeless situations, perhaps seeing a mirror of his own life in theirs. “He faced the depraved and the deprived, the small villains, the smaller victims.”
His assistant is a young man named Jesus Ortiz. At first the two get along, but eventually, the reader learns more about Jesus’ intentions and his connections with the neighborhood thugs.
Sol is concerned with only one thing in life: money. It did not escape Sol’s notice that his role is of the stereotypical Jewish moneylender; in fact, Sol articulates a brilliant yet sardonic narrative on the subject when his assistant asks him why Jews are natural businessmen.
On the surface, Sol appears to lack emotion, other than a disdain for his customers and a barely suppressed rage at his sister and her family, who use him for his money. He is outwardly cold and pushes away those who try to get close. He is incapable of forming friendships or romantic relationships.
Despite Sol’s outward lack of emotion, his thoughts tell another story. He is plagued by nightmares about his days in the camp, particularly about the brutality endured by his family, and spends the bulk of the book in fear of the anniversary of his family’s death.
Only near the end does Sol experience a release of pent-up emotions, following a cataclysmic and startling event.
One’s initial impression may be that the book is dispiriting: the mood is dark, and Sol is a complex character, haunted by loss. But a deeper reading of the book reveals much symbolism. For example, it is likely no accident that Sol’s assistant was named Jesus, and perhaps some of the customers who came through the pawnshop represented the concentration camp victims.
Wallant excels at painting scenes of wretchedness and hopelessness, but his turns of phrase and insightful prose overpowers the bleak atmosphere.
Edward Lewis Wallant was born in 1926 in Connecticut and died in 1962 at the age of 36 following a brain aneurysm. Other well-known works include “The Human Season” and “The Tenants of Moonbloom,” published posthumously. The Edward Lewis Wallant Award was established in 1962 by Fran and Irving Waltman, admirers of the late author, and is given at the University of Connecticut to American Jewish authors whose works have significance for American Jews.
In 1964, “The Pawnbroker” was made into a film, starring Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman; it also marked Morgan Freeman’s feature debut.