A Replacement Life
A Replacement Life: A Novel by Boris Fishman. (Harper, 336 pp. $25.99)
Few authors generate the hosannas that greeted Boris Fishman for his debut novel, A Replacement Life, which was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Review of Books. (“Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer?” asked the critic Patricia T. O’Conner. “There had better be, because here he is.”)
Fishman, who was born in Minsk and came to the United States at age 9, has been compared to Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, who also started life in the former Soviet Union. Now 35, he is en route to joining the company of distinguished American writers born elsewhere.
Irreverent, unexpectedly comic and full of irony, A Replacement Life delves into the world of first-generation Russian immigrants and finds much to like—and dislike. The main character, Slava Gelman, 25 and trying to assimilate flawlessly into the American milieu, can’t quite shake his heritage or his conniving grandfather, Yevgeny, whose moral compass apparently has never been activated.
It is 2006 and Slava is working for Century magazine, a publication that resembles The New Yorker, but he is making little headway in his attempt to be a feature writer. His beloved grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who raised him, has just died, depriving him of the memories he hoped to use as he embarked on a literary career.
Here the novel ventures into an ethical no-man’s land. Yevgeny summons Slava to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach to tell him that his grandmother received a letter from the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany days before she died. Germany was offering reparations for a survivor of a concentration camp, ghetto or forced-labor brigade.
Although Yevgeny doesn’t quite fit the categories, having dodged the draft by feigning insanity, fled Minsk and sat out the war, he wants to apply anyway, using real or imagined “experiences” that his wife encountered.
And he wants Slava to compose the story. “You’re a writer, aren’t you?” he tells Slava, who is outraged at the notion of fraudulently profiting from the Holocaust. “Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered, but they made sure to kill all the people who did.”
“This is like an article for your newspaper,” Yevgeny argues.
“Articles for my newspaper are not invented.”
“This country does not invent things?” Yevgeny asks, rhetorically. “Bush did not invent a reason to cut off Saddam’s balls?”
The logic is irrefutable, and Slava relents. He is no match for his persistent grandfather, who “got what needed to be got,” a friend remembers from Soviet days: “the salami, the caviar, the cognac, the minks.”
Slava composes an application with real and invented facts. In a twist, Slava finds an odd exhilaration in the process. Soon, the immigrant community is abuzz over Slava’s expertise in framing a narrative, and dozens of elderly Russian Jews besiege him to write their wildly embellished stories.
For Slava, the lying becomes easier as his output multiplies. The falsehoods begin to affect his performance at Century magazine as well as his love life. Ostensibly looking for “slip-ups, flubs and double entendres” in other magazines and consumed by composing the erroneous applications, he invents faux pas for Century, and he has difficulty distinguishing between the real and the fake.
His passionate affair with Arianna, a fact-checker at the magazine whose Jewish immigrant roots long predate his, hits a roadblock. The Russians want to match him with Vera, a childhood friend who represents all the crassness associated with the European life. The women take opposing positions as Slava’s chicaneries multiply. Arianna assumes the moral high ground; Vera is all for continuing the deceit. Eventually, Slava can’t stand himself or his actions.
Colorful characters abound, abetted by clever and jaunty writing. Fishman may have coined a simile in describing a young woman: “Like a Soviet high-rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity.”
Inevitably, the subterfuge is discovered by an investigator for the claims conference who confronts Slava and offers him a deal. If Slava confesses, he will discard the phony applications but keep the real ones. If not, he will reject all of them. For Slava, the choice is whether to be true to his past or betray the immigrants and be true to himself.
There are no easy answers in reconciling truth with justice, and Fishman, describing “murky compromises” in which an immigrant forges a new life, leaves it to the reader to mull the consequences.