What would the United States be without its immigrants? Imagine no pizza, no New York City Ballet, no Saul Bellow — and no new waves of talented émigré authors helping us to see American culture from fresh angles. With his first novel, A Replacement Life, Boris Fishman (who came to the United States from Belarus in 1988 when he was nine) staked himself a spot in the impressive lineup of immigrant writers born in the former Soviet Union. He shares a satirical edginess with Gary Shteyngart, but his tragi-comic worldview and inverted sentence cadences evoke Bernard Malamud as he zeroes in on the rub between his characters' native and adoptive lands and the theme of reinvention.
Fishman's second novel, Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo, comes harnessed with what is surely one of the oddest titles of the year. Could it refer to an assimilating immigrant's resolve to draw the line at an American pastime that outdoes even football in its violence? Fishman quickly bucks that idea. His story focuses on a Jewish couple — originally from Belarus and Ukraine — who adopt a blonde, "unquestionable goy" baby from Montana. "Please don't let my baby do rodeo" is the biological mother's sole, parting request. Huh? Well, her young husband's addiction to rodeo has destroyed both his body and their prospects.
Fishman rides the theme of adoption hard as a metaphor for cultural transplantation. Baby Max is repotted in New Jersey with Maya and Alex Rubin and Alex's overbearing parents. Maya, torn from her mother and her native culture in Kiev, can identify; she feels smothered by her life with the Rubins, who she refers to not as in-laws but as her adopted family.
The novel jumps around in both time and tone. Set mostly in 2012, it reels back to 2004, when the couple adopt Max, and 1992, when Maya Shulman meets Alex Rubin just as her student visa is about to run out. Alex, a coddled only child who came to America at eight, is smitten by Maya's bold capriciousness: "This is what happens when Maya comes around — her presence kneads the unease inside him until it shapes into insight."
Unfortunately, as Fishman's focus shifts almost entirely onto restless, flighty Maya, Alex becomes a distant cipher, a void not just in Maya's life but the book. "How will Maya know whether she said yes to the man or the country?" her mother astutely wonders at her wedding. Twenty years later, the question eats at Maya more and more.
Max turns out to be a quiet, easy child, causing little worry — until, at eight, he begins to display a growing communion with nature, which the Rubins find bewilderingly alien. Their prejudices against wildlife run almost as deep as their prejudices against adoption, leading them to wonder whether Max's so-called "acting out" and "wildness" are written into his DNA. "Genes are not water," Alex's father reminds them. "Biologically, he is and always will be the child of those people."
Fishman's novel veers from gently, quasi-comical to broad-stroke satirical to earnestly heartfelt. Along the way, there are plenty of sharp observations about American culture, parenting, and the adoption process. "A unicorn comes online more often than Jewish," says their adoption counselor — who shares the name Mishkin with Dostoyevsky's saintly idiot.
It takes nearly two hundred pages for the Rubins to head west in search of Max's roots — by which point readers may be as restless as Maya. Once they hit the road in their aptly named Escape, the novel gains momentum. Maya confronts her alienation, homesickness, and frustrated yearning and behaves badly in the Badlands. The plains may be flat and barren, but Fishman's narrative swerves repeatedly in refreshingly unexpected directions. After a bumpy start, Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo grows on you as it stretches beyond themes of adaptation to champion the importance of getting in touch with the great wilderness — both in nature and oneself.