A case of a Fish(man) out of (Soviet) water

David Herman revisits Boris Fishman


Don’t Let My Baby Do RodeoBy Boris Fishman
One, £12.99
Reviewed by David Hermanare

Boris Fishman's first novel, A Replacement Life, told the story of two generations of immigrants from the former Soviet Union now in New York. The New York Times called it "bold, ambitious and wickedly smart". That, if anything, understated the case.

Two years later, Fishman has brought out this much-awaited second novel, the story of two generations of immigrants from the former Soviet Union now in New Jersey. Alex and Maya Rubin are in their early 40s. Alex works in his father's food import business. Maya is a mammographer in a local hospital.

The Rubins have adopted Max, now eight. The novel begins with an emergency. Max has disappeared. He didn't take the school bus home as usual. It's hard to say who's more anxious, the parents or the grandparents. But they do agree on one thing. Max is not normal. He has no friends, he has run away from home, he collects different kinds of grass, he nearly drowned looking at pebbles at the bottom of a creek and sleeps in a tent rather than his own bed.

What the family cannot agree on is whether Max's problems are to do with the fact that he's adopted, the son of a pair of teenagers from the Midwest.

The first half of Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo is set in suburban New Jersey, where Max's family live and, through flashbacks, tells the story of how Alex and Maya met, their roots in the former Soviet Union and how they came to adopt Max. The second half tells the story of their trip to Montana to make contact with Max's biological parents. It becomes a road movie, a Russian-Jewish version of Little Miss Sunshine.

One key question lies at the heart of the book. We all know Max is not normal. But what about his parents? Who is the real problem?

Is it Max, the runaway loner? Is it his father Alex, uptight, struggling to deal with his own, overbearing father, Eugene, who owns the family business? Or is it Max's mother, Maya, emotional, at times even hysterical, who feels that her life has taken a wrong direction somewhere between Kiev and suburban New Jersey?

Fishman fills the book with a cast of colourful minor characters: Mishkin the adoption supervisor; Bender the eccentric Russian child-therapist; Madam Stella the healer; and many more. The prose bites and twists: two Ukrainian restaurants offer food "like you're eating boiled shoe lost in corn oil"; when the Rubins ask Mishkin if there's a Jewish child they can adopt, he replies: "A unicorn comes online more often than Jewish"; and, for life's emergencies, "some men carried condoms, Band-Aids, umbrellas, Eugene Rubin carried a jar of roasted peppers".

Many will find this story of an unhappy family trying to pull itself together moving, at times funny, a pleasure to read. Others may feel there's something missing, a loss of literary ambition perhaps. Or maybe the lesson for Fishman is: forget Montana and stay with crazy Russians on the East Coast. That's his real subject. It's what makes his writing buzz.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

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