A Replacement Life

A Replacement Life

4.4 5
by Boris Fishman

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Winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

Winner of the American Library Association's Sophie Brody Medal

Finalist for the National Jewish Book Award

A singularly talented writer makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: Forge

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Winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

Winner of the American Library Association's Sophie Brody Medal

Finalist for the National Jewish Book Award

A singularly talented writer makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: Forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.

Yevgeny Gelman, grandfather of Slava Gelman, “didn’t suffer in the exact way” he needs to have suffered to qualify for the restitution the German government has been paying out to Holocaust survivors. But suffer he has—as a Jew in the war; as a second-class citizen in the USSR; as an immigrant to America. So? Isn’t his grandson a “writer”?

High-minded Slava wants to put all this immigrant scraping behind him. Only the American Dream is not panning out for him—Century, the legendary magazine where he works as a researcher, wants nothing greater from him. Slava wants to be a correct, blameless American—but he wants to be a lionized writer even more.

Slava’s turn as the Forger of South Brooklyn teaches him that not every fact is the truth, and not every lie a falsehood. It takes more than law-abiding to become an American; it takes the same self-reinvention in which his people excel. Intoxicated and unmoored by his inventions, Slava risks exposure. Cornered, he commits an irrevocable act that finally grants him a sense of home in America, but not before collecting a price from his family.

A Replacement Life is a dark, moving, and beautifully written novel about family, honor, and justice.

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Editorial Reviews

Twenty-five-year-old Slava Gelman already has a job as a junior staff member of a New York magazine, but he can't resist the call to create a bogus personal history to enable his crafty grandfather to gain Holocaust restitution from the German government. Before long, that one family favor blossoms into multiple south Brooklyn requests for similar fake biographies, entangling Slava in matters that (for readers at least) are as hilarious as they are soulful. Editor's recommendation.

The New York Times - Apollinaire Scherr
…mordantly funny and moving…The architecture of A Replacement Life morphs with its mood. It switches from the highway of plot to the byways of reflection and dream. The novel might have done better at signaling these changes, but it comes by its errant ways honestly. Its method reflects Slava's conflicted, off-kilter life. This impressive debut is immigrant literature to its bendy bones. And like much good immigrant fiction, Slava's predicament stretches out to the rest of us—to anyone who has come to New York, or wherever ambitions lie, and found herself thrown back on her uncouth origins, reliving the past for those who had half hoped she would leave them behind and half known she wouldn't dare.
The New York Times Book Review - Patricia T. O'Conner
Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer? There had better be, because here he is. Boris Fishman's first novel…is bold, ambitious and wickedly smart…The only problem with this novel is that its covers are too close together. I wanted more of Slava, his bumpy love life, his venal grandfather, even Herr Barber. Undoubtedly, comparisons will be made—to Bellow and the Roths (Henry and Philip), as well as to Gary Shteyngart, who also came from the Soviet Union as a child. But in reading A Replacement Life, I thought most often of Bernard Malamud. Like the hero of The Fixer, Slava Gelman is an honorable man who finds that one broken rule, one risky move, changes his life irrevocably.
Publishers Weekly
★ 02/10/2014
The debut novel from Fishman shines with a love for language and craft. Minsk-born 25-year-old Slava Gelman has made it to the bottom of top-tier journalism. He’s junior staff at Century magazine, and he’s just been given a shot at a byline. But the death of his Holocaust-survivor grandmother throws self-involved Slava’s life out of focus. His grandfather—a quick-to-brag but resourceful man who “gets things”—pressures Slava into forging a restitution claim letter for Slava’s deceased grandmother, then spreads the news around his South Brooklyn neighborhood of Slava’s availability to write such fraudulent letters. Soon, Slava finds himself sharing secrets with strangers whose war stories, full of “the oddly specific details he had come to learn make a narrative feel authentic,” leave him feeling much closer to his grandmother. Fishman’s description of the precious information that grandparents pass down is beautiful; their memories have been a burden for Slava, whose grandfather’s meandering stories about Soviet life leave him “feeling like a failure because he was letting gold slip away in a fast-moving river,” but he learns their real value in the course of this forging scheme. Writers like Slava, and like Fishman, have a responsibility to do justice to the beauty in the details, and Fishman achieves that handily here. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious young writer compromises his integrity for the sake of his Russian forebears in Fishman's darkly comic, world-wise debut.Slava, the hero of this tale, toils as a relatively anonymous researcher at Century, an esteemed New Yorker-style magazine. Though he's a gifted storyteller, he's relegated to writing snarky retorts to flyover-country news briefs. His hubristic ambition to write bigger things is seized upon by his grandfather, who wants him to write a narrative for an application to receive reparations from Germany for death-camp survivors. The grandfather wasn't actually in the camps, but no matter: Slava is masterful at giving (and withholding) just enough detail to be persuasive, and soon, much of the post-Soviet Jewish diaspora in Brooklyn is asking for similar assistance. Instead of making a dour morality tale, Fishman mines this setup for comedy, satirizing the magazine's preaching about accuracy (which proves to be conditional) and portraying Slava as an easily led intellectual schlemiel. Bolstering his indecisive character, Fishman has Slava juggling two romantic interests, one a Century fact checker, the other a fellow Russian. How to make such an uncertain man worth spending time with? The novel is largely carried on Fishman's sharp wit, ear for dialect and close character studies, which capture the sociological nuances of everyone from preening magazine editors to doting relatives. (He writes of Brooklyn's Soviet expat community: "These unlike people had been tossed together like salad by the cupidity of the Soviet government, and now, in America, they were forced to keep speaking Russian…and they did, because a Ukrainian's hate of Russian was still warmer than his love of an American." Slava's romantic and professional reckonings in the closing pages are inevitable, but Fishman thoughtfully raises questions of what Holocaust-era suffering is deserving of recompense.A smart first novel that's unafraid to find humor in atrocity.
Patricia T. O'Conner
“Bold, ambitious and wickedly smart…A REPLACEMENT LIFE is full of descriptive treasures…The only problem with this novel is that its covers are too close together. I wanted more of Slava, his bumpy love life, his venal grandfather.”
Joyce Carol Oates
“A memorable debut by a wonderfully gifted young writer...Boris Fishman has written a beautifully nuanced, tender, and often very funny novel about conscience and familial loyalty that will linger long in the memory.”
Jim Harrison
“Fishman is a stunning writer, and A REPLACEMENT LIFE deserves a wide audience.”
Tom Bissell
“Boris Fishman fearlessly tackles the grandest subjects, among them the nature of honor and the transferability of suffering. That he succeeds this well, and with so much style and grace, marks him as a writer not only to watch but envy.”
Salvatore Scribona
“A terrific talent dealing in serious themes… Fishman is a gifted and accomplished writer, an honest one, grounded in the real.”
Arthur Phillips
“A novel that works beautifully on many levels. It’s about the compromises involved in telling any story…Boris Fishman finds a new way to negotiate these tensions, a new language, even as he sometimes shows how he does it, a little magic act all its own.”
Darin Strauss
“A REPLACEMENT LIFE is a hell of a book. Told with amazing virtuosity, fun and serious, funny and sad, profound and eminently readable, it will make you happy until it’s over. And then you will be sad.”
Teddy Wayne
“A Replacement Life deftly straddles the line of a plot-driven novel of ideas and a moving account of a writer’s maturation…Fishman’s debut is suffused with elegant language and sly humor and composed with the authority of a novelist on intimate terms with both his subject matter and art form.”
Brian Morton
“With a sense of humor and a sense of tragedy, A REPLACEMENT LIFE explores a hidden New York…There’s a touch of Gogol here, a touch of Babel, a touch of Dostoyevsky, but out of these materials Boris Fishman has fashioned something distinctively and triumphantly his own.”
Hilton Als
“Boris Fishman’s A REPLACEMENT LIFE is so strong in voice, humor, and compassion that it transcends fiction’s limitations to become something wilder and more contained—like life. What a remarkable debut—true and resonant, humorous and real.”
New York Times
“Mordantly funny and moving… Justice is eventually served in A REPLACEMENT LIFE along with plenty of black comedy, but the book is less about doing right or wrong than about where absolutes, moral or otherwise, do not apply … impressive.”
The New Yorker
“[An] ingenious debut...the novel is often very funny, but its most rewarding moments come as Slava, listening to the war stories of...elderly strangers, finds himself drawing closer to the grandmother whose secrets once seemed lost to him.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Fishman, like his protagonist, is a born storyteller with a tremendous gift for language on all brow levels, making for a captivating and rare first novel that is tender, learned, funny and deeply soulful - frequently all at the same time.”
Chicago Tribune
“Fishman’s firm yet light authorial hand, his gift for character and plot development, and his searing use of the English language belie his youth and his novice-novelist status. His witty dialogue and wry, believable descriptions leaven the dark, dense bread of the tale.”
“Beautifully written and occasionally quite funny…[a] complicated paradox of remaining loyal to one’s community while moving bravely into a new world.”
Wall Street Journal
Sly and subversive...smart and sardonic...a touching story about a tenacious way of life disappearing amid the prosperity of America.”
NPR/All Things Considered
“In the way the he presents these [truths] to us with feeling, humor and eyes wide open, novelist Fishman doesn’t miss a beat.”
“Delightful…though the subject matter is largely dark, when you least expect it there is also humor which comes up and bites you in a most pleasant way… A REPLACEMENT LIFE is a brilliant first novel by a talented writer.”
“Fishman has talent galore, and an attractive love interest, funny set-pieces, a brochure-beautiful Big Apple, and spectacular, acutely self-conscious prose are all most enjoyable.”
“Powerful yet tender…real and vibrant…Fishman never loses the reader’s trust. No line in this book rings false, no character is unheard, no event seems like a plot device.”
Shelf Awareness
“Fishman invests Slava’s moral quandary with realism and pathos, while resolving it in a way that’s simultaneously unpredictable and satisfying…Like his protagonist, Fishman manages to keep all these plates spinning, finally bringing them to a clean stop with impressive style.”
The Oregonian
“A sharp, darkly funny debut novel…Irreverent but loving…Fishman explores themes of loyalty, morality, and history, and asks the sorts of questions that don’t have easy answers.””
Tablet Magazine
“[Fishman’s] tales offer the most powerful reckoning with the immigration experience by a Soviet-born American Jewish author this year-and, perhaps, to date.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Tova Reich and Shalom Auslander have delivered witty, nervy books on the subject. Add to their ranks Boris Fishman…Fishman humanizes the participants so well. Contemporary novelists have a bad habit of making immigrants appear monolithically earthy and good-natured, but Fishman knows better…deft and funny.”
“Scintillating…a surprisingly wise novel that’s also full of more or less guilty laughs, a book that joins Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy as the first true post-Holocaust novels of our time. It’s highly recommended.”
The Week
“Boris Fishman’s ‘wickedly smart’ debut visits an immigrant culture readers have explored before, but it brims with descriptive brilliance and ‘crackles with irony.’”
Howard Freedman
“Boris Fishman’s A REPLACEMENT LIFE is one of the year’s most memorable Jewish novels.”
From the Publisher
"The debut novel from Fishman shines with a love for language and craft." —Publishers Weekly Starred Reviews
Library Journal
Slava Gelman has distanced himself from his immigrant family of Russian Jews so that he can become truly American. When his grandmother dies, his grandfather convinces Slava to submit a claim to the German government program for restitution to Holocaust survivors. The catch is that his dead grandmother qualified but his living grandfather does not. Slava amends the story, making the application in his grandfather's name. He suddenly finds that his grandfather has spread the word to the entire Russian community and that everyone wants Slava to write (read: invent) their narratives. When Otto, from the Center for Restitution, contacts Slava about the many applications received from his neighborhood, he must weigh truth against morality. VERDICT Fishman, an émigré from Belarus, captures the complexities of family, nationality, and history as he cleverly ties the loose ends of truth, justice, morality, and family into a tidy bow in his first novel.—Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Boris Fishman was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. He is the editor of Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, and his work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York City. A Replacement Life is his first novel.

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A Replacement Life 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The language, the characters, the story - Fishman's aced them all. Add to that the moral dimension, and you have an unforgettable and important novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Smart, witty, insightful, and, best of all, well-written. Fishman is obviously someone we will be hearing a lot from.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boris came to our school and was hilarious! Loved this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. If you like Gary Shytengart, you will love Boris Fishman
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hated the character, didn't like the book at all.  Why pity someone who is unsympathetic.