Editor’s note: This article originally appeared the July/August 2014 issue of our print magazine. Boris Fishman reads from “A Replacement Life” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 23, at Moscow 57, 168 1/2 Delancey St.
For many generations, new immigrants settled on the Lower East Side not because they thought it would be a great place to live, but because there was no other option. But Boris Fishman, who came to the United States as a child 26 years ago from the former Soviet Union, made a conscious choice to establish roots in this neighborhood.
Nearly a decade after moving into an apartment in the East River Cooperative, Fishman is not only feeling right at home on Grand Street, but the young writer is also experiencing his first taste of success as an American novelist.
Last month, “A Replacement Life,” Fishman’s literary debut, landed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. “Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer?,” wrote reviewer Patricia O’Conner. “There had better be, because here he is. Boris Fishman’s first novel… is bold, ambitious and wickedly smart.”
The Times is not alone in singing his praises. The past several weeks have been filled with television and radio appearances, public readings and mostly glowing press reviews.
“A Replacement Life” tells the story of Slava Gelman, an aspiring and frustrated 20-something journalist, who is persuaded by his grandfather to fake Holocaust restitution claims for the Russian Jews in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
Like any good novelist, Fishman takes many liberties in the story, but there are more than a few parallels with his own life. In 1988, at the age of 9, he found himself living in south Brooklyn, after his family immigrated from Minsk. After school, he worked for three years as a fact checker for The New Yorker, before embarking on his career as a freelance writer. At the age of 24, his parents had set him up in an Upper East Side apartment, where Fishman felt completely out of place.
Over coffee one recent afternoon at Ost, the new cafe on Grand Street, Fishman explained why he gravitated to the Lower East Side.
“As soon as I got the opportunity to leave,” he explained, “this neighborhood appealed to me, because I never smelled anything on the Upper East Side, and this neighborhood is just full of smells, both good and bad.”
“Things are alive here,” Fishman said, referring not only to the section of the LES where he lives but also to the broader neighborhood. “Chinatown just keeps it real in a way that things never are on the Upper East Side.”
Determined to go his own way, Fishman did not simply move into the formerly Socialist-leaning cooperatives, but he transformed the apartment in a manner that initially horrified his family. Drawing on recollections from an extended stay in Mexico, he painted the walls in bright, bold colors, added many eclectic design flourishes and created what was described in one newspaper profile as a “hacienda in the sky.”
The living room, which is dominated by an oversized work table, is Fishman’s ideal writing space.
“It has always been such an oasis,” he said. “That apartment is a really fertile place to work.”
The idea for the novel originated when Fishman was asked to fill out the restitution paperwork for his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Since war victims could obviously provide no documentation, the claims, he noted, “came down to whether you could tell a good story.” It immediately occurred to Fishman that it was “only a matter of time before someone has a field day with these applications.” And in fact that’s exactly what happened in a scandal that erupted in 2010.
In the story, Yevgeny Gelman cajoles his grandson into telling a whopper of a story, that he lived through the Holocaust, when in fact he fled to Uzbekistan during the war. Yevgeny justifies the fabrication by arguing that he suffered, just not exactly in the way the restitution forms required.
“My avatar, Slava Gelman, argues with his grandfather and both, to me, make really good points about why the other is wrong,” he said. “I really wanted myself not to know which one of them was right… I wanted to explore this morally murky situation.”
Another major theme is family, and the need so many immigrants feel to create their own identity.
“My novel,” Fishman said, “is so taken up with how to reconcile yourself with your family, especially across generations.” In real life, there’s no doubt Fishman chose a different direction than the one envisioned by his parents. But Fishman said they came to accept and to support the choices he made.
“I did go off on my own path,” he said. “It cost me so much to disappoint and defy my parents in that way,” but today “an incredible tether remains.”