At the start of Boris Fishman’s dazzling new novel, we are stuck inside a claustrophobic Soviet–Jewish family trying to keep life on track in suburban New Jersey. Maya and Alex have a tense marriage, not helped by the constant presence of his parents and their moralising Russian proverbs. It is 2012 and the Rubins’s eight-year-old adopted son Max has just gone missing after school.
Eventually he is found, but something is very wrong. The last straw comes when they discover Max on the lawn surrounded by “a convention of bucks, does, and fawns…chewing the twigs around [his] feet” and sometimes “rubb[ing] their white-spotted flanks against [his] side”. What can it possibly mean that he seems to have turned feral?
Desperate to solve this riddle, Maya thinks back to the adoption and the single occasion they met Max’s birth parents. The agency they found in the Yellow Pages turned out to be in a former department store, where Maya “attempted to navigate its fluorescent cubicles and cream-colored hallways” and “ended up at bathrooms for the handicapped”. The supervisor sympathised with them because of his own Russian origins, boring them with anecdotes about his family history and indulging in what the Rubins see as the “strange custom” of American Jews “assault[ing] émigrés from the former Pale with biographical thumbnails”.
Maya and Alex are told that Jewish children up for adoption are as rare as unicorns, and a black baby would be too much of a “radical departure from the familiar”; so the choice comes down to “a Catholic, familiarly dark-haired but unfamiliarly Hispanic, and a Protestant, familiarly Caucasian but unfamiliarly blond”.
Though the Rubins wanted a “closed adoption”, with no contact with the birth parents, at the last minute the latter decide to drive from Montana to deliver Max themselves. Maya bought “enough diapers for [their] son to shit himself until college” and laid on a spread of “highlights from the Ukrainian kitchen”. Laurel and Tim are both 18, with hair the colour of “starved grass”.
“It must have been due to the radical emptiness of the territory they inhabited,” reflect the Rubins, “that such a plain-looking boy could seduce a girl of such prettiness. In this, maybe Montana was like the Soviet Union after the war—any man would do, twenty million having been lost.”
After two decades in the United States, Maya still knows nothing of the country beyond New Jersey. She realises that it might require going to Montana and confronting the birth parents to unravel the mysteries of Max’s behaviour. Laurel had told her she had given the baby up for adoption because, though Tim made $6,000 a year riding bulls, he was already injured and she worried about “hav[ing] a husband in a wheelchair in five years”. As she left the house, she made one last enigmatic request: “This is your child. You’re the mother. You will raise him as you see fit. But I want to ask you for one thing. This is why we drove two thousand miles. I wanted to look you in the eye and ask you. Please don’t let my baby do rodeo.”
Like the family in David Bezmozgis’s stunning debut collection, Natasha and Other Stories (Vintage, 2004), the Rubins are lovable, exasperating Russian Jews striving to secure a foothold in North American life; baffled by this new world, they are forced to turn inwards in their quest for support. The second half of the novel, in which, since Maya is afraid of flying, they drive two thousand miles in the opposite direction from Tim and Laurel, is not quite as successful as the first. Something of a road novel, with scenes set in campsites, horse shows, motels and diners, it is full of vivid and often grotesque Americana seen through Maya’s eyes, as she and her husband struggle to patch up the cracks in their marriage. The correlation between brooding or exhilarating landscapes and inner psychological states is less convincing than the incisive social comedy that preceded it. But Fishman is a formidable talent, a fabulous young writer with a steely wit and a razor-sharp eye, and Don’t Let My Baby do Rodeo is a brilliant and exhilarating read.
Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo
By Boris Fishman
This review appeared in the Autumn issue of Jewish Quarterly. Subscribe for more.