Perlman is the son of second generation Jewish Australians of East European descent. Perlman studied law at Monash University in Melbourne, graduating in 1989.He was called to the Bar in 1997, but it was while working as a judge's associate in the early 90's, that he started writing short stories, winning 'The Age' short story competition in 1994.
In 1994 he won The Age Short Story Award for The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, a short story that later gave the title to his first collection of short stories, published in 1999. In 1998, his first novel Three Dollars was published. It won The Age Book of the Year and the Betty Trask Prize. His second novel Seven Types of Ambiguity was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious literary award, in 2004.
In an interview in 2001 he named Graham Greene as one of the writers who inspire him, describing Greene as "a master of beautifully crisp, clean and spare prose".
His work "condemns the economic rationalism that destroys the humanity of ordinary people when they are confronted with unemployment and poverty". This is not surprising in a writer who admires Raymond Carver and Graham Greene because they "write with quite a strong moral centre and a strong sense of compassion". However, he says that "Part of my task is to entertain readers. I don't want it to be propaganda at all. I don't think that for something to be political fiction it has to offer an alternative, I think just a social critique is enough". He describes himself, in fact, as being interested in "the essence of humanity" and argued that exploring this often means touching on political issues.
Perlman often uses music, and song lyrics, in his work to convey an idea or mood, or to give a sense of who a character is. However, he recognises that this "is a bit of a risk because the less familiar the reader is with the song, the smaller the pay off."