PAPERBACK OF THE WEEK

DON’T LET MY BABY DO RODEO

Boris Fishman (One, £12.99)

Loading article content

The immigrant experience has been one of the core themes of American fiction, although it’s probably never been handled quite like this before. Now in their early forties, Maya and Alex Rubin both came to America from the former Soviet Union, although Alex was a boy when his parents emigrated and Maya was older, and on a student visa. Boris Fishman, who was born in Belarus but moved to the US at the age of nine, is perfectly placed to write about their particular emotional conflicts and unconscious anxieties.

Alex married Maya so that she could stay in the country, and they’ve been living in New Jersey ever since, with Alex’s parents a constant presence in their lives. Unable to have children, they adopted the baby boy of a couple of teenagers from Montana, a decision which provoked much debate in the Rubin clan, adoption being seen as admitting something foreign into the family. Even now Max is eight, they still have reservations about him, and these resurface explosively when Max disappears after school one day, later turning up on a farm, where he is examining pebbles on the bottom of a stream.

Finally, Max’s little quirks have precipitated a domestic crisis. He’s been collecting and labelling samples of different varieties of grass, which they think is a weird hobby for a boy, especially when his research includes nibbling them. He prefers to sleep in a tent rather than his bedroom. Worst of all, they discover he’s something of a deer whisperer. Most American families, one imagines, would take these as signs that Max had a future ahead of him as a naturalist or a zoologist. To the Rubins, steeped in the traditions of their homeland, these are horrifying warnings that the boy is going “feral”.

The grandfather has always maintained that, being from Montana, the trashiest elements of poor rural folk will be imprinted on Max’s genes and were bound to come out eventually, a suspicion Alex shares. Maya’s outburst that “my son seems to have been birthed by a wolf” is equally horrible. Regarding Max like a piece of missold merchandise, they become obsessed with tracking down his birth parents in Montana so they can get some answers.

There’s a powerful moment when Max’s young mother, Laurel, personally brings the baby to the Rubins and, before she exits, announces with a simple but uncharacteristic formality, "Ma’am, this is your child.” Although a few more show-stopping emotional punches like that would have been welcome, Fishman is in cool and nuanced control of his material. Maya and Alex’s attitude towards Max doesn’t do much to endear them to us, but by sticking closely to Maya, and probing her deepest fears and fantasies, he pushes us insistently towards an understanding of these misguided but determined parents, and how the couple’s fears for Max spring from their anxieties about living in an adopted country, their resigned acceptance that they will never see the land of their birth again and their struggle to assimilate while remaining true to their traditions.

ALASTAIR MABBOTT