cover image The Barbarians Are Coming

The Barbarians Are Coming

David Wong Louie. Marian Wood Book, $23.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14603-9

The author of a highly praised story collection, Pangs of Love, has now written an ambitious and appealing first novel, brilliant in its scathing insights. From his first sly pun, Louie's hapless narrator, Sterling Lung, wins the reader's rapt attention: ""One day my Bliss is in Iowa, studying dentistry, gazing at the gums and decay of hog farmers and their kin."" It is 1978, and 26-year-old Sterling, the bright American-born son of Chinese parents, has already disappointed his parents by choosing the Culinary Institute of America rather than medical school, and he's about to disappoint everyone else as well. His casual girlfriend Bliss wants more from their relationship; his parents want him to marry the Chinese picture-bride they have chosen for him; and his employers, the Waspy women of the Richfield Ladies' Club, want him to cook Chinese food, though his specialty is French cuisine. Although Sterling becomes deeply involved with Bliss, their relationship seems doomed from the beginning. And although Sterling learns to cook Chinese dishes to become a cable-TV chef, the best he can do is to parody a Chinese cook, calling himself the ""Peeking Duck,"" and turning all his Ls to Rs as he speaks. At the heart of Sterling's failings is his troubled and distant relationship with his ailing father, Genius, who is devoted to the Chinese laundry he runs. Louie dazzlingly captures the bitter ironies of Asian-American life, but it is the scenes between father and son and, eventually, the scenes between Sterling and his sons, that expose the most complex realities of Chinese-American identity. To his parents' dismay, Sterling is Westernized to his roots--and yet, isn't that what they wanted? Though they expect him to cleave to his Chinese heritage, his parents chose ""lean lives among the barbarians, so [Sterling] might enjoy penicillin and daily beef and be spared Mao and dreary collectivism, shared destiny, rationed rice, the communal butt-rag at the outhouse door."" Louie's coruscating novel is full of astonishing writing, but the real delight is his wit and humor as he keeps plucking away the prickly petals of his characters' desires until he finds their hearts. Author tour. (Mar.) FYI: Louie's Pangs of Love received the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and the Ploughshares First Fiction Book Award.