A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman. HarperCollins. 336 pages. $25.99.
A generation of Jewish immigrants from former Soviet Union countries is coming into its own as a special breed of Jewish American writer. The balance of ethnic identity spans a significant range. Some of these writers seem more Eastern European than Jewish, as might be expected when growing up under a regime that had little tolerance for religious communities. Others seem to treasure their Judaism as a kind of heirloom, but still arrive in the U. S. lacking significant Jewish learning or worship experience. In fact, their American lives often make possible the process of Jewish education and acculturation (as Gary Shteyngart recalls his American Jewish day school years in his recent memoir Little Failure).
In 1979, Minsk-born Boris Fishman came to the U. S. from Belarus at the age of nine. After well-placed work as an accomplished journalist, Fishman’s first novel is putting him on the map in a big way.
Slava Gelman, Fishman’s surrogate, works for a prestigious New York based magazine called Century. However, whatever his tasks, he has not yet broken through with an article bearing his by-line. He needs to break through, to prove to his skeptical grandfather – the family patriarch – that his choice of a career was neither foolish nor unmanly. Stava needs, as well, a fulfilling relationship with a woman. The pursuit of these needs springs the action of this unique and brilliant novel, along with the effect of Slava’s grandmother’s death on the family.
The Gelman family and their relatives have become part of a Russian-Jewish enclave in Brooklyn. Inside their community, they are – of course – insiders. Still, they remain outsiders in the larger community of New York City. They admire the abundance of choices that America offers, but they are not able to partake of this abundance on a large scale.
An almost totally Americanized Slava has become marginally connected to his family and his roots. To a significant extent, he is an outsider among them. He is also an outsider, for a complex of reasons, in his workplace community. What good are his writerly aspirations doing him or anyone else?
His grandfather, the ultimate schemer and scammer, has made a reputation as the guy who can get his hands on things that others cannot. His well-played false innocence leads him to hatch a devious scheme to benefit himself, his neighbors, and perhaps even his grandson. What’s wrong with lying for a good purpose?
He comes up with a plan for Slava to fabricate letters requesting war reparations from the German government. While many of the aging Jews in the Gelmans’ Brooklyn community were disadvantaged because of the Nazi regime’s actions during World War II, they had survived the Nazis to lose even more under Soviet repression in the years following the war.
First reluctant and then fascinated with the idea, Slava finds himself going along with it. He is now a creative writer, making up biographies with key incidents that qualify that alleged victims for reparations. His underground fame spreads. Money is offered for his services. His grandfather is, finally, proud of him.
All goes well until an odd, shrewd inspector corners Slava and starts asking questions.
Just as Slava is lured into one part of his destiny, he is lured into another as well. This time, there is far more upside to it. His co-worker, the quirkily independent Arianna Bock, finds something in Slava to arouse her sympathy and then her passion. She leads him into a romance and also wises him up about the ways of a writing career at Century and beyond.
Perhaps Fishman’s greatest gift is his talent for writing group scenes made out of conversations that couldn’t possibly be real but are totally convincing and revealing. There are several such scenes in A Replacement Life that could be expanded into plays. They are filled with social nuance, familiar pettiness, and (from the perspective of the participants) unintentional wit and humor.
Fishman’s narrative shines with bright metaphors and similes. Describing a woman who has been assigned by a social service agency to assist his grandfather, he writes: “Like a Soviet high-rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity.”
How do things work out with the family, with Arianna, with Slava’s career creating fraudulent lives on paper? Well, that’s a long story. Do yourself a favor and read it for yourself.
This review appears in the November 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).