The parents of an eccentric adopted child head west to explore his roots and learn a few things about their own.
Maya and Alex are immigrants of Russian Jewish extraction with little comprehension of America outside their suburban New Jersey enclave, so they’re not sure what to make of it when their preteen son, Max, acquires a taste for the outdoors. He scares mom and dad by briefly disappearing to explore a nearby stream, has a newfound expertise in varieties of grasses, and he’s gotten frighteningly close to the fauna in the backyard. Perhaps his biological parents’ native land, Montana, somehow lurks in his genes? It’s a preposterous notion, but for a novelist with a sense of the absurd like Fishman (A Replacement Life, 2014, etc.), it’s enough to hang a novel on, and he has plenty of insights on how blurrily parents often perceive the nature-versus-nurture divide. Eager to look for the roots of Max’s behavior, Maya thinks back to her own past (as an aspiring restaurateur who married to stay in the United States) as well as her scraps of memory of Max’s biological parents, a hotel-clerk mom and battered rodeo-performer dad (hence the title). Fishman entertainingly satirizes a host of types (a folk healer, a dotty psychologist, a weary adoption-agency staffer, starchy old-world in-laws), but he’s sincere when it comes to Maya, who’s at the center of a plot twist that gives the closing chapters their gravitas. This feels almost like a magic trick given some of the narrative creakiness: Fishman sometimes overwrites scenes, Max and Alex don’t claim much of the stage, a love-story detour feels untenable, and Montana is overplayed as a punch line. (“It can’t be more beautiful than New Jersey,” says Maya.) But Fishman smartly observes that the assimilation novel and road-trip novel make good partners. Both, after all, are about finding freedom.
A comic novel about parenting infused with emotional intelligence.