What is foreign and what is native? That’s the question at the heart of Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman. And, if Montana represents authentic America, where does that leave the New Jersey suburbs (where the author grew up)?
There are other questions raised — and partially answered — by Fishman’s second novel: If you are an immigrant living in that suburb with an adopted child born in Montana, can you ever feel that you are at home? If you adopt a new family, are you a foreigner to yourself? And finally, if everything you do and feel as a Russian Jew is foreign to American Jews, how do you manage that essential piece of identity?
On its surface, Rodeo couldn’t be more different from Fishman’s highly acclaimed 2014 work, A Replacement Life. Where that book focused on communal norms and corruption in South Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community, the new one follows the internal journey of one character.
But, as Fishman discussed with NJJN on a recent evening, there are plenty of similarities, starting with the focus on Russian immigrants. An immigrant himself, both novels spring from his own experiences growing up partly in Minsk, partly in Brooklyn, and partly in New Jersey (Wayne, to be precise). “I came here when I was nine years old, and for the last 28 years, I’ve had one foot in one culture and one foot in another. Sometimes, I feel like a foreigner in both,” he said.
Fishman spoke with NJJN by phone from New York City, where he now lives; he will read from and sign copies of Rodeo (Harper, 2016) on Sunday, April 3, at 4 p.m. at [words] bookstore in Maplewood.
Rodeo contemplates a child, Max, born in Montana and adopted by Alex and Maya, Russian immigrants living with Alex’s parents in suburban New Jersey. While Alex and his parents like the state, Maya, like Fishman, finds it “ugly” and longs to go somewhere more serene, more calm — like Montana — where she eventually drags the family, ostensibly for Max’s benefit, but actually to find herself.
Through Max, Fishman said, he is “working out” some of his own feelings of being so different from his parents and grandparents, who retained the mindset of their country of origin as he was shaped by his adopted home. “Their main form of interaction with America is the economy. They are proud citizens, but they are psychologically Soviet,” he said.
On the other hand, “I’m American. My schooling is American; my professional aspirations are American.” And that means that while at times his parents seem to know him best, he said, “Some days it’s like they’re from a different planet.”
Even his choice of sending “Maya” and “Alex” to Montana, the place Fishman calls “authentically American,” comes from his own love affair with the state — which began, he said, “in a ShopRite in Wayne, NJ, in 1994.” That’s where his attention was caught by a poster for Legends of the Fall. The movie was set in Montana, of course, and starred Brad Pitt, who was “blond and not uncomfortable in his skin — the textbook definition of American. There was something in the way it looked to a 15-year-old immigrant boy ill at ease in his own skin,” Fishman said.
He rented the movie and read the book. After that, he said, “I wanted to look like Brad Pitt, I wanted to live in Montana, and I wanted to be a writer.”
Fishman eventually did visit Montana. And while he settled on the East Coast, he continues to make an annual trek to the state. “Montana was just as beautiful as I’d hoped,” he said. “I was breathing in a new way on my first day. The idea that ‘there is room to inscribe yourself here’ floated to my mind. Weirdly, I felt, now I’m open and free and calm” in a way, he said, he never could be in New York.
The new novel is also full of Jewish identity issues, some discussed directly, but mostly that lie below the surface. “This is one of those Jewish novels where the Judaism is not literal but everywhere between the lines,” said Fishman. He and his character Alex and Alex’s parents, Fishman said, “are shaped 100 percent by their experience as Jews in the Soviet Union. They are fearful, paranoid, skeptical, and generally averse to new experiences, because Jewish life in the Soviet Union was very insecure.”
And that makes them noticeably different from their American-Jewish peers, who grew up in mostly safe environments. If many American Jews are Democrats, Fishman pointed out, “All Russian Jews are hardcore conservatives.” And while American Jews express their religion through observance, he said, “Russian Jews do not.”
But what he is most sensitive to, and what he brings to life in the book, is the fascination Russian Jews hold for American Jews. Because so many of them share the same roots, he said, American Jews often interrogate Russians “when they are fresh off the boat” about the towns they left behind, hoping to glean something about their own heritage.
He described the experience: “People rush up and say, ‘Oh, my great-grandmother was from something-something-gobernia,’ and they expect me to tell them what it was like for her because I came from there,” he said. “I understand — but it’s a little bit like we are zoo animals, and often we’re mystified.”
In Rodeo, the character of Mishkin, an adoption agent who is a third- or fourth-generation American Jew with roots in Russia, captures this tension. He embodies that “condescending let-me-tell-you-how-to-live-in-America” approach, said Fishman, “but he’s also fascinated by his history.” (Creating “Maya” and “Alex,” said the author, has also inspired his plans to visit Belarus, the place his antecedents abandoned, and write a memoir.)
Mishkin is not a sympathetic character — in the novel he is compared to his namesake in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (Mishkin is the idiot). Fishman diplomatically calls it a “loving poke” at American Jews.