A New York pawnbroker reckons with the loss of his family in the Holocaust in one of the first American novels to confront the atrocity.
First published in 1961 and a finalist for the National Book Award, the second novel by Wallant (1926-1962) is a close cousin to Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, another book in which a small shop becomes a flashpoint for violence and a window into Jewish suffering. Sol Nazerman runs his Harlem store with dour aloofness—contempt for negotiation, distrust toward his sole employee, and exasperation with the youth-center fundraiser trying to crack his defenses. “Friendliness rolled off that man like water off porcelain,” as Wallant elegantly puts it. But though Sol is somewhat one-note and doesn't match the creations of Malamud, Bellow, Henry Roth, and other Jewish-American writers Wallant was associated with during his brief career, Sol's still waters do run deep. He’s most prominently affected by the Holocaust: Sol is plagued with harrowing memories of the cattle car that took him to the camps, of murdered fellow detainees, and of his wife’s forced prostitution. His fragile sources of stability are the shop, the family he lives with and whose financial crises he manages, and the woman with whom he has a sexual relationship that’s shot through with “desperation and mutual anguish.” For all that gloom, though, Wallant’s goal isn’t to explore Sol’s inner despair so much as to reveal the complexities of the larger world by having Sol abrade against it. Much of the book’s force and flashes of humor derive from Sol’s interactions with the motley souls entering the shop; despite some awkward ethnic slang, there’s a sharp, photorealistic quality to those minor characters. And the book gains energy from its plot, which involves a mobster and a planned robbery that puts Sol in an awful position that Wallant thoughtfully interrogates throughout: how do you trustfully navigate the world when you’ve experienced the worst that people are capable of?
A worthy exploration of a subject that remains underrepresented in fiction.