Summary for The Fixer (Edition used: 1966, 1994 Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux edition, with 2004 introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer.)
1. Pages 3-5Yakov Bok knows something terrible has occurred when he looks out the window of his room above the brickyard stable and sees Russian peasants hurrying through the snow toward some nearby caves. He learns that a dead child has been found in the caves. The next day’s newspaper completes the details: a twelve-year-old boy named Zhenia Golov was found stabbed multiple times and “bled white” more than a week ago. Soon, leaflets printed by the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds organizations appear, accusing Jews of the murder (supposedly for a religious ritual) and demanding that Russia must be saved “from the Jews.”Yakov grows nervous. He is a Jew living in the Lukianovsky District, from which Jews are banned, under a fake name and without the proper residence certificate. Yakov’s own father had been killed as part of a hate crime when Yakov was just one year old. As a child, Yakov had survived a Cossack pogrom (a massacre) against the Jews in his village. The memory of this violence has never left him.AnalysisThe narrator sets the stage by making it clear that Yakov Bok lives in a time of great oppression and mistrust of Jews. Why they are persecuted in Russia is as yet unclear. What is clear is that Yakov feels a sense of foreboding. Just being a Jew is risky enough; Yakov is a Jew out of place. Everywhere are the Black Hundreds, an organization whose purpose is to cleanse Russia of Jews. That the novel opens in medias res suggests that Yakov is stuck “in the middle” of things. His predicament foreshadows worse to come.
2. Pages 5-25Five months before the murder of Zhenia Golov, Yakov prepares to leave his village and seek a better life. His wife of five years, Raisl, had run off with another man two months previously, after Yakov quit sleeping with her because she was apparently barren. Raisl’s father, the peddler Shmuel, begs Yakov to have some charity toward his wayward wife; he is convinced that if Yakov had consulted the rabbi, things would have been different between Raisl and Yakov. Yakov rages that he has no room for charity, for none has ever been given to him. He was orphaned at one year old and placed in an orphanage, where he learned little religion and was always hungry. He was apprenticed as soon as he was ten, and later he was forced into the Russian army. But he taught himself Russian and other subjects despite his hardships. He has always relied on his hands to “fix” things that are broken, he declares, but he cannot fix a broken heart. He even fixes broken things for others, but he cannot fix his own heart.Yakov leaves the house and Raisl’s pitiful cow to Shmuel, in exchange for Shmuel’s broken down horse and rickety wagon. He loads his books—a Russian grammar, a biology book, a book of writings by Spinoza, and an old atlas—into the wagon with his tools and a little food. Dressed as a peasant and with his bear shaved off, he does not look like a Jew but a “goy,” a gentile. Before Yakov leaves, Shmuel tries to persuade him not to go to Kiev. He’ll be outside the “Pale,” the area in which Jews are allowed to live in Russia; only wealthy Jews and those who are professionals can get papers allowing them to go outside the Pale. Yakov, Shmuel also points out, will also be without the Jewish God. Yakov scoffs that God is “in the outhouse.” Shmuel says that Yakov will be in danger because he’ll be closer to the Black Hundreds. Yakov says he does not care; he wants to learn more of the world and try to find a better life. If not in Kiev, he’ll find it in Amsterdam or America.Yakov sets out in the wagon, with Shmuel accompanying him a little ways. Near the cemetery, a shnorrer or beggar asks for money, but when Yakov says he has none to give, the beggar calls him a goy. Yakov passes through the village, which is so rundown that it irritates Yakov, “the fixer, who liked things in place and functioning.” Yakov passes through the marketplace, where he greets no one, and by the synagogue, where he has rarely been in recent times. When Shmuel gets down to leave Yakov, he gives Yakov an bag embroidered by Raisl and containing phylacteries (small leather boxes containing scrolls), a prayer shawl, and a prayer book. He wishes Yakov not to forget God. Yakov, however, says God has forgotten him.The horse slowly—and with many stops—pulls Yakov away from his shetl or village and into the countryside, which looks dreary in the November weather. Yakov does not feel happy, however, for leaving his village; instead, he feels apprehensive about what awaits him. He is thirty years old—an old age to be starting over in life. After a stop for food and a nap, Yakov and the horse continue their slow progress and come upon a pilgrim woman in the road. Yakov offers her a ride. However, when the wheel comes off the wagon shortly after that, the woman crosses herself and gets down.Yakov finds that he, the fixer, cannot fix the broken wheel. As night begins to fall, he decides to try to make it on three wheels, but a second wheel breaks. “‘Who invented my life?’” Yakov rails. He sees the old woman ahead, prostrating herself before a wooden cross on the side of the road. Yakov gathers his bundles and mounts the horse to ride around the old woman, but the horse instead merely inches ahead, munching on grass as it goes. At last it is dark—and very cold. Yakov becomes spooked by the darkness, the strangeness of the land, and the moaning wind. He recalls Lilith, Queen of Evil Spirits, and other bits of dark folklore. Finally, the moon rises. Yakov and the horse continue slowly, until at last Yakov comes out of a doze to see a dark river and the lights of some houses.AnalysisYakov seems to believe that his life has been cursed somehow, that Fate, rather than a caring God, have directed his life from birth. In fact, he cannot believe in a God who allows such misery. Yakov also seems to feel that he has had no power in his life thus far—that events beyond his control have conspired to make him poor and wifeless. He will not even take responsibility for the failure of his marriage, although Shmuel makes a valid point that Yakov contributed to its breakdown. In Yakov’s view, he is not to blame for any of the misfortunes in his life.Yakov, however, does take it upon himself to try to change his fate. By venturing out of the shtetl, he leaves both the misery that he feels has been his lot in life and the protection of being among those who are equally as miserable but who have faith in God. Yakov puts his faith in himself.From the beginning of his journey, however, Yakov does not seem to be on the road to better fortune. The uncooperative horse, the beggar that he will not help, the broken wheels he cannot fix—despite his talents for fixing things—and the woman who abandons him because he obviously has no luck . . . all of these events foreshadow not better fortune, but perhaps worse fortune ahead.
3. Pages 25-28The ferry across the river is closed, but the boatman agrees to take Yakov across if Yakov gives him the horse. When the boatman questions his accent, Yakov says he is from Latvia, and he says nothing when the boatman rants about the Jews and how they are ruining Russia and should be exterminated. He swears to Yakov that such a day is coming, and he crosses himself. “Yakov fought an impulse to do the same. His bag of prayer things fell with a plop into the Dnieper and sank like lead.”
AnalysisFerries and ferrymen, in literature, often signify a crossing into the unknown, even into death. The boatman’s speech about exterminating all Jews certainly warns Yakov that he will find hostility and violence beyond the Pale or Jewish settlement—and maybe even death. Yakov loses his Jewish prayer things in the river so that he will not be identified as a Jew. But the hatred for Jews is deep. Will simply trying to look like a gentile protect him? How does one disassociate himself from a whole race of people?