Boris Fishman ’01 grew up in New Jersey, but for 20 years he has been obsessed with Montana. That obsession — sparked by his affection for novelist Jim Harrison, who lives there — led to the starring role Montana gets in Fishman’s new novel, about the adoption of a baby from Montana whose birth mother gives him away with the words of the book’s title, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo.
Maya, a Ukrainian exchange student, and Alex, the coddled son of Russian immigrants, get married and eventually adopt a son, Max, who puzzles them with his behavior — at 8, he eats grass, sleeps in a tent, and runs away to sit with his face submerged in a river. To solve the mystery of how Max got that way, they set off from their home in New Jersey to Montana.
“I wanted readers to think about some of these unanswerable questions, like what inheritance means and what it means to belong,” says Fishman, who is teaching this year in Princeton’s creative writing program.
The novel is set in the claustrophobic world of Russian immigrants — as is his highly acclaimed first novel, A Replacement Life— but this time Fishman’s central character is female. “I wanted to get out of my head and into a female character’s head,” he says. “Fiction is a kind of fantasy where you get to live lives you can’t live in your real life.”
The novel explores “archaic notions of womanhood” in Russian and American culture. “Maya realizes she’s given herself away to be somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter-in-law, and she’s hollow inside,” he says.
Fishman is exploring other facets of his own life these days. After more than a decade living in New York City — and a summer during which he volunteered as a farmhand, planting thousands of lettuce heads a day — he is experimenting with a move to Montana. He plans to write in the mornings and work on a farm in the afternoons.