Edward Lewis Wallant * Fig Tree Books * November 20, 2015 * 279 Pages
Sol Nazerman runs a pawn shop in a low-income neighborhood. His business is mostly legitimate–sure, he pays money for the random trinkets brought in by his destitute neighbors–but the business isn’t profitable. And he’s only able to stay afloat through the patronage of a local criminal who is using Sol’s business as a vessel to launder his money.
Sol lives an isolated and sad existence. As the story advances, we see why. Sol is a Holocaust survivor–the only one of his nuclear family to make it. His wife and two children were all not only killed, but also suffered horribly beforehand. (His flashbacks about his wife were awful, nearly unbearable to read.) While many see the numbers etched into Sol’s forearm, few seem to make the connection that he is a survivor. Or maybe they just don’t care.
This book reads about as drearily as the plot sounds. At first, I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. I’ve heard a bunch of people say this book reminds them of Dostoevsky’s works, but I have to disagree. At least Dostoevsky injected some mania in with his depression; The Pawnbroker, on the other hand, is straight melancholy, through and through.
However, when I made it past the first 50+ pages, when I started knowing more about Sol’s backstory and started seeing his more significant relationships unfold, I found myself hooked. I was absolutely enthralled and invested. And though I really don’t want to sound cliche here, the flashbacks to his experiences as a prisoner broke my heart. I’m not going to lie: I cried…a lot. I have to give Wallant credit for creating a deep, thoughtful, multidimensional story and cast of characters. I don’t think that I ever really liked anyone in this book, but I definitely felt for all of them.
Ultimately, The Pawnbroker is not a book to read if you want to feel warm fuzzies. It’s deeply–just OPPRESSIVELY–sad. But it is also thought-provoking and honest. (And I would add that it ended on a surprisingly optimistic note; I actually wasn’t expecting that.) Before reading this book, I had no idea that Edward Lewis Wallant was a Jewish-American author lumped in with the likes of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, or Bernard Malamud. But after reading this book, I can definitely see that his talent more than qualifies him for the company of those acclaimed authors. This was a heavy read, but also a very, very good one.