Book Review: A Replacement Life
by Boris Fishman
Slava Gelman, the main character of Boris Fishman’s scintillating debut novel A Replacement Life, toils as a junior staffer at an august New York magazine, “the legendary, secretive Century, older than The New Yorker and, despite a recent decline, forever a paragon” (viewed by the educated with “awe, piety, and savage curiosity”). But his factotum duties there – duties he shares with his lovely co-worker and object of affection, Arianna – don’t fulfill his dreams of being a writer; he supplies raw material for the magazine’s marquee writers, but he never gets his own name up in the lights.
His professional frustrations are hardly foremost on his mind at the novel opens, since his grandmother has just died, and Slava is attending the services with his extended family of Russian Jews living in New York exile. He’s a bit in awe of his grandmother’s tragic history:
Grandmother had been in the Holocaust – in the Holocaust? As in the army, the circus? The grammar seemed wrong. At the Holocaust? Of it, with it, from it, until it? The English preposition, stunned by the assignment, came up short – though she said no more than that, and no one disturbed her on the subject. This Slava couldn’t fathom, even at ten years old. Already by then he had been visited by the American understanding that to know was better than not to know.
After the services, Slava’s grandfather summons him to his Brooklyn apartment (“Usually, Grandfather bolted all three locks – in this part of Brooklyn, eyes still roamed with Soviet height of desire”) to discuss a proposition. Slava’s grandmother had been a prisoner in the Minsk ghetto during World War Two, and as such she qualified for reparations from the German government. She’s gone now (in one of Fishman’s many piercing little emotional insights, we get one bleak line: “Her slippers are right there, but she’s not,” Grandfather said. “What sense does that make?”), but her absence has given Slava’s grandfather an idea: why shouldn’t Slava use his big-shot writing talents to take down his grandfather’s accounts of being persecuted during the war, so he, too, can qualify for reparation money?
Dumbfounded, Slava tries to clarify: “Look. It says: ‘Ghettos, forced labor, concentration camps … What did the subject suffer between 1939 to 1945?’ The subject. Not you. You didn’t suffer.”
To which his grandfather responds in one of the pitch-perfect little clotted arias at which Fishman is gloriously adept:
“I didn’t suffer?” Grandfather’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve got a grave already, I didn’t suffer. God bless you, you know that?” He snorted, as if he’d been asked to sell a perfectly healthy horse at half value. “All the men were taken right away: Aaron, Father, all the cousins. Father was too old for infantry, so they took him to Heavy Labor. Two years later, there’s a knock at the door. I see this skeleton in rags, so I shout to my mother, ‘There’s a beggar at the door, give him some food!’ Not a strange sight in those days. And he starts weeping. It was Father. A week later , they told us about Aaron. Killed by artillery. I wanted to spare my mother losing the last of her men, so yes, I went to Uzbekistan. Not to live in a palace – to pick pockets and piss myself on the street so they’d think I was a retard and not draft me.”
(“No more dances, no holidays, no meals with your mother at the stove,” the old man rages. “A meal like this? Do you know what it means to have a meal like this? Do you know what we came back to after the war? Tomatoes the size of your head. They’d fertilized them in human ash. You follow?”)
Slava refuses, but the more frustrations he encounters at Century (and with Arianna), the more he starts to sympathize with his grandfather’s heartache:
“Can you blame him?” he went on. “You think he had plans to leave Minsk in 1941? No, he ran from the Germans. Then he came back and was a Jew under the Soviets forty-five years, which is to say a lower life-form. Then America. Here you’re not a Jew anymore. Here you’re an immigrant. Go back where you came from, Commie. You don’t think he’s due?”
And there’s also the undeniable pull of creating the dramas with which he might fill the German reparation forms. He eventually throws himself into the job, and the central comic motor of A Replacement Life is that the story soon spreads to his grandfather’s peers, many of whom would like to take advantage of his storytelling abilities for some reparation money of their own. He becomes known sub rosa as “The Forger of South Brooklyn,” and Fishman pursues the drunken, ambling logic of his premises with the dogged clarity of a natural-born dark humorist. The result is a surprisingly wise novel that’s also full of more or less guilty laughs, a book that joins Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy the first true post-Holocaust novels of our time. It’s highly recommended.