MARCH 8, 2016
THE PLOT of Boris Fishman’s novel goes, more or less, like this: A Soviet-born immigrant in the United States, caught between Russia and America, experiences a crisis of identity stemming from conflicted allegiances to both places and cultures. Romantic entanglements further pull this protagonist in two directions. One love interest is associated with the familiar culture of the immigrant home, from which the main protagonist has been growing somewhat estranged. Kept on a short leash by a Russian family, this supporting character has a rather schematic presence in the novel and doesn’t speak too many lines. The other romantic interest, the American, is far more independent and offers the promise of belatedly discovering America. There is no neat resolution in the end, but the protagonist does experience an epiphany, which centers on thinking anew about the complicated inheritance bequeathed by Russia and America both.
This plot summary describes Boris Fishman’s new novel — but oddly is equally apt in summarizing his previous one.
On the surface, Fishman’s second novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, seems entirely different from his debut, A Replacement Life (2014). For one, the main protagonist is a woman. Her name is Maya Rubin (née Shulman) and she appears dissimilar from Slava Gelman, the male protagonist of Fishman’s first book, who shares some aspects of Fishman’s biography. Gelman, like Fishman, is Jewish; like Fishman, Gelman immigrated to America from Minsk as a little boy; like Fishman at the time, Gelman is in the process of figuring out how to become a writer himself. In the new novel, Fishman puts some distance between his story and that of his protagonist, helping steer the expanding corpus of work by the cohort of Russian-born American Jewish writers, Gary Shteyngart and Anya Ulinich among them, from overreliance on the autobiographical. Maya, also Jewish, hails from Kiev, arrives in America when she is 18, and stays on because she marries Alex Rubin, by then a US citizen. Alex, like Fishman, is from Minsk: in Fishman’s noticeable shift from placing a male immigrant figure from his native city at the center there is evidence of the writer’s clear aspiration to write a central protagonist who is less like himself. It’s 1992, Maya is in her early twenties and she does not want to return to Ukraine to become a doctor. Surprising even himself, Alex — who had been presented with the predictable cast of prospective girlfriends that émigré Russian Jewish parents are wont to foist onto their sons, and who in his adventurous post-college years has worked to move away a little from his parents’ culture — falls for Maya despite her Russianness. Two decades later, in 2012 — the novel’s narrative present — Alex, employed by his father’s food import company, turns out to have hardly struck out on his own. Maya’s dream of opening a Russian restaurant has not materialized and she works as a medical assistant. Having met in New York City, the Rubins now live not far from Alex’s parents — “though enough properties away to be out of view, in deference to American ideas about privacy” — in suburban New Jersey.
In the earlier novel, A Replacement Life, Slava leaves the “swamp broth of south Brooklyn,” a place redolent of his parents’ and grandparents’ previous homes in Soviet Belorussia. His destination is Manhattan — a place that seems nearly mythical and certainly very distant to the Russian Jewish immigrants Slava knows in Brooklyn, a dreamy place onto which he projects his desire for a creative breakthrough. In Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, the novel’s first part is titled “East” — referring to the mid-Atlantic and, implicitly, Eastern Europe; the second part “West.” Like Slava, Maya is headed west, and much further — to the higher elevations of Montana. But, like Slava’s subway ride into Manhattan, Maya’s car trip to the American West is both a way of finding America and a journey of self-discovery. The key difference — though given the abundance of creativity-as-birthing metaphors in literary history, a difference that’s hardly unusual as much as it is deeply problematic — is that while the male protagonist of one novel gets to be a writer on a creative quest, the female protagonist of the other has to deal with a procreative conundrum.
Maya and Alex’s lives were changed radically in 2004, when they adopted their son Max. In setting up the adoption plot in Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Fishman returns to the question of generational transmission he so provocatively pried open in A Replacement Life. For Slava, the central question was how he — a budding English-language writer — inherited the stories of the Soviet Jewish experience and what authorial freedom he had or didn’t have telling these stories in his adopted language. He faces this question when his grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust, dies and, not knowing many details of her life, Slava begins to invent a plausible but nonetheless imagined heritage through storytelling. The two female characters in that novel — one Russian and one American — offer Slava not only romantic entanglements, but also contrasting ways of relating to telling stories that aren’t true, stories in which family inheritance is conceived through the process of creative imagination.
The issues of generational transmission arise in Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo because of infertility. Maya Rubin ponders her motherhood and, through motherhood, her own internal makeup. She faces difficult questions of what kind of heredity she and her husband will pass on to the son she did not conceive. While his adoptive parents speak to Max in Russian and bestow Russian diminutives on him, Max begins to act, as the Rubins put it, “wild.” He runs away, eats grass, prefers to sleep in a tent outdoors, and consorts with wild animals — behaviors that Maya and Alex attribute to Max’s biological makeup as a child born in and borne of what they imagine to be the wilds of the American West. Siding with nature over nurture, Alex reminds Maya that he opposed adopting a child because “you get genes that belong to somebody else.” Maya, more invested in the adoption process than her husband, also ponders the question of genetics. When meeting Tim, Max’s biological father, she makes a mental note that “[h]e looked like the Slavic boys” who used to ask her out, and fears that Max will inherit Tim’s non-Jewish features.
Fishman is a writer who uses his words with deftness and precision. At one point, he shows that he is aware of the problematic nature of birthing metaphors in his novel. The Rubins, though they opted for a closed adoption, are one day informed that their son’s birth parents want — as their adoption coordinator Gabriel Mishkin tells Maya on the phone — to “deliver” the child. Maya asks Mishkin what he means by this word, and he “giggle[s]” in response: “You know — like takeout,” referring to the teenage couple’s wish to drive their newborn all the way to New Jersey from their native Montana. But this joke doesn’t resonate with Maya: the conversation takes place while Maya is by the stove, “making [cabbage] soup to last their lunches for the rest of the week”: her Russian cooking practices don’t allow for takeout. Fishman mixes up the language of food and procreation, presenting Mishkin as a wisecracking character whose punning is clearly deliberate and who is tone-deaf and insensitive in his humor.
The 34-year-old Maya, on the verge of adoption, thinks in terms of birthing metaphors as well: “Most girls in Kiev were mothers by twenty-one. Instead of a child, Maya had given birth to a new life in America. It was twelve years old now, and she was ready for another. She wanted for it a sibling.” Interpreting Max’s “wild” behavior as a sign of his heredity, Maya — like her husband — doubts whether the child is truly “hers” and whether the American life she had “birthed” is hers also. Convincing Alex to go on a family trip to Montana, Maya ostensibly wants to find Max’s biological parents and ask them questions that could shed light on his behavioral issues.
Of course, Maya’s trip to Montana — like Slava Gelman’s trip to Manhattan and many other literary journeys West — doubles as Maya’s discovery of America. Maya thinks that after so many years in America, it’s time to find out what the country looks like beyond the Eastern seaboard: some immigrants “hid out in their American port of arrival, but the Rubins did not fear change, exploration, discovery. Livingstone, Amundsen, Rubins.” Here, Fishman borrows from another famous literary resident of New Jersey: “Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthrop, General Washington, now Portnoy,” says Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, famously breaking into exuberant singing about his sexual conquest of gentile American women, which he imagines as the discovering of America itself. Just as in Slava’s case Fishman sets his protagonist up with a romantic prospect — inevitably and schematically, an American one — to help Maya illuminate the contours of her personal journey.
The American in Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is a divorced man, Marion. He is a creature of the Mountain West — savvy when it comes to camping and steering away rattlesnakes, a man with an awareness of nature very much keener than Alex’s, with his obsessive mowing of suburban grass. Alex and Marion’s respective sexual appeal to Maya is paired explicitly — if in a somewhat cringe-worthy fashion — with these characters’ respective geographies, one predictable and the other mysteriously arousing. Here is Maya in Montana, masturbating in the shower: “Despite the avidness with which she worked, her orgasm was as far away as New Jersey. She tried to think of Alex, but it didn’t work.” Then follows a more satisfying fantasy of Marion, whom Maya met a little earlier — of having friskier sex in a bathroom stall of a Montana diner.
The beautiful, cold Montana night that Marion shows Maya, over a warm thermos of tea and whiskey, resembles the natural beauty of Central Park that Arianna — the American lover in A Replacement Life — shows Slava in Manhattan. Arianna calls into question Slava’s attempts to invent stories that aren’t true in place of his own inherited narratives. Marion, in turn, diagnoses Maya’s quest for the source of the hereditary “wildness” of her child as a substitute for the inner journey she needs to bravely undertake herself: “People camp here through the winter. Some people seek out wildness at all costs. And God blessed you with your own supply.” As her relationship with Marion develops, Maya reexamines her Ukrainian childhood experiences, and begins to ponder whether her son’s inherited “wildness” originated not in Montana but in Maya herself.
This realization brings Maya closer to what Gelman — and, surely, Fishman in his perceptive metafictional first novel — already knows: heredity, to a great extent, is a construct, it’s simply the stories we tell about ourselves and where we came from. But in Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, the author doesn’t allow his protagonist to fully consider this possibility. Instead, she is tied to her gender, her biology. In Montana, during a snowstorm, Maya viscerally experiences a moment that brings geography and forgotten experience closer: “Northeast snow slicked up and slushed, slurping under the feet, but this was the snow of Kiev.” The journey away from what had become a second home ends up an opportunity of discovering a new way home instead. In A Replacement Life, Slava Gelman has an epiphany by the tomb of his grandmother, realizing how much work he has to do as a budding writer if he is to learn to tell better stories about his own imagined origins. In Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Maya Rubin’s epiphany occurs in Montana snow that reminds her of her native Kiev, shortly after she — aged 42 now — sleeps with Marion: “It was comic to feel her belly three hours after he’d been inside her; this wasn’t a fairy tale, least of all her age; but she felt anyway; because she wanted and could.” Marion may have gotten Maya pregnant.
The idea that second novels are somehow cursed is a cliché of literary criticism in its own right, yet it’s hard not to think that Fishman has written the same novel twice, substituting the creative quest of the male hero in his first book with the procreative biology of the female protagonist in the second. Mishkin’s insensitive pun about delivering a child offers a clue as to why. Mishkin is an American Jew with roots in the Russian Empire going back several generations. He is the classic nostalgic figure of a good deal of American Jewish fiction, pining for and seeking to recover his own inheritance, lost somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Europe. Soon after working with the Rubins on their adoption of Max, Mishkin took early retirement to travel to Belarus and Poland, and to locate his great-grandfather’s village. “[I]t started with you,” he tells Maya and Alex, who turn up at his house one day, seeking more details about the adoption of their now eight-year old son. “Those family explorations I started in earnest after we dealt with each other.” Insensitive yet again to the Rubins’s panicked and illogical questions about their adopted son’s genetic inheritance, Mishkin trots out his own constructed genealogical narrative.
As with so many aspects of Fishman’s fiction, it’s hard not to think of Mishkin as not another nod in the direction of the meta-literary: Mishkin represents the sort of American Jewish reader whose own sense of interrupted intergenerational transmission from Eastern Europe to America is somehow fulfilled by people like the Rubins — Jews from the Soviet Union whose stories American Jews find so captivating. Much of the fictional output by the Soviet-born American Jewish writers — a decade and a half into this literary wave — seems to be caught in this interminable feedback loop: there are enough hints out there that the Mishkins of this world are not entirely sensitive to the stories that Russian Jews could tell them, but it’s endlessly enticing to continue to tell these stories all the same. In Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Boris Fishman — even if he can’t quite break free of the meta-fictional Mishkin looking over his shoulder — tries courageously to tell a story that is different. The fact that he largely succeeds, and that he worries, in the text, about the ways in which he doesn’t, are promising developments for Fishman as a novelist, and for Russian-American fiction as a whole.