(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Pawnbroker is a stunning work that details the psychic journey of a tortured Holocaust survivor. A third-person omniscient narrator introduces and describes characters and circumstances that reinforce the main character’s rage as well as those who help release him from it.

The novel’s protagonist, forty-five-year-old Sol Nazerman, was a professor at the University of Kraków in Poland. Arrested by the Nazis for being Jewish, he was physically and emotionally tortured in an extermination camp where his wife and children died. At the beginning of the novel, Sol lives in Mount Vernon, New York, with his sister, her teacher husband, and their two children, and he supports them by running a Harlem pawnshop, a setting redolent of lost dreams and corrupted lives. Bertha, Sol’s sister, tries hard to assimilate herself into American upper-middle-class life, while Sol’s nephew Morton, like Sol, is a solitary soul who studies drawing.

Described as an intensely private, bitter man with no allegiances, Sol speaks mostly in cold monosyllables to his family and isolates himself from them. Sol’s sleep is often interrupted by flashbacks to horrific experiences, as when his son drowns in the bottomless human feces in the railroad cattle car en route to the death camp.

At the pawnshop, Sol hires a lively, amiable young assistant, Jesus Ortiz, who rapidly becomes more than a mere apprentice to Sol. Jesus wishes to learn the pawn business so that he can open his own shop someday. Sol explains that the Jewish affinity for business and money comes from thousands of years of insecurity caused by anti-Semitism. A typical day at the pawnshop includes an endless series of junkies, prostitutes, and other desperate souls, each with an item to pawn. Sitting in his wire cage like a trapped animal, Sol coldly ignores their entreaties for more and gives each customer from two to five dollars.

Another important character is Marilyn Birchfield, a warm and caring social worker. She is not put off by Sol’s coldness, and she senses the tortured person behind his impenetrable facade. Her friendly visits seem to quell Sol’s inner rage slightly. Although he chafes at her kindness, Sol has a few moments of peace when they take a Hudson River boat trip; still, he dissuades her interest by likening a relationship with him to necrophilia.

The Holocaust is never far from Sol’s mind. He frequently visits his mistress Tessie and her father Mendel, both of whom are tortured by their memories of the death camps. It is loss, not love, that ties Sol and Tessie together, as each has lost both spouse and children at the camp. A less sympathetic survivor is Goberman, who betrayed his own family for food rations and who now threatens and manipulates other survivors to contribute to the Jewish Appeal. In another flashback to an episode in which a terrified inmate threw himself against an electrified fence, Sol recalls Tessie’s idea that the dead are far better off. Therefore, when pawnshop owner and racketeer Murillio shoves the barrel of his gun down Sol’s throat because Sol is angry that the pawnshop illegally launders money from Murillio’s brothel, Sol encourages him to pull the trigger. Readers are then shown another flashback to Sol’s horror at having to watch his wife’s forced sex acts in a Nazi brothel.

After Mendel’s painful death and Sol’s traumatic flashback to his camp job of dragging gassed corpses to the crematoria, Sol treats Jesus more coldly. Sol even lectures Jesus that he trusts and believes in money only. This motivates the young man to conspire with some unsavory associates to steal cash from the pawnshop. When Sol thwarts the robbery by standing in front of the safe, Jesus moves to protect Sol and is accidentally killed by his coconspirators. This crime—occurring on the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Sol’s family—so stuns Sol that he suddenly feels great compassion and love for Jesus, reaches out to his nephew Morton for help at the shop, and begins to grieve his terrible losses.

Wallant’s major characters function both as well-developed individuals and as symbols that advance the novel’s themes. His minor characters are never stock or one-dimensional, but their full development is necessarily subordinated to that of the major characters.

Because Sol rarely communicates verbally in more than monosyllables, readers learn about him mostly from the reactions of and comparisons with Jesus, Marilyn, Tessie, and Mendel as well as from omniscient narration, interior monologues, and nightmarish flashbacks. Wallant uses eye imagery for...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)