ÊSet in the late '70s and early '80s, David Wong Louie's first novel examines a young man caught in the middle of two worlds. Sterling Lung, a chef in his late twenties, finds himself straddling China and America while dealing with his family and fatherhood. His Chinese immigrant parents constantly tug him towards their traditions, even procuring a Hong Kong woman as a potential bride. Sterling chooses to dismiss his heritage, viewing it as anachronistic, superstitious, and inferior to American culture. Consequently, his parents incessantly criticize him for siding with the barbarians. He refuses to prepare Chinese cuisine for his employers (a WASP-ish ladies club in Connecticut), preferring to create elegant French dishes because he enjoys the artistry, but also to refute his ancestry. The impending pregnancy of Sterling's girlfriend, Bliss, further brings the culture conflict into stark relief. Her own parents, Holocaust survivors, typify the American dream: wealthy and assimilated. In a sense, they represent Sterling's own aspirations.
The novel examines Sterling's roiling emotions vis-a-vis his various family members. His relationship with Bliss runs from apathy to tolerance to affection; once the two marry, an emptiness seems to fill the space between them. They have two sons, each of whom Louie associates with a different grandfather, further crystallizing the marital schism. Sterling and his parents struggle to communicate, their rapport characterized by obligation, duty (both parental and filial), and long stretches of coldness.
While this overarching thread of family and heritage binds the story together, Louie's adroit command of language emerges as the novel's greatest pleasure. He writes with a voice striking in its precision. Most of the novel is told in the first person by Sterling and, consistent with his occupational background, culinary images are folded into the narrative. These too demonstrate a deft touch with word and image, one that could be bungled by a less skilled writer. Sterling's love of cooking (at odds with his father's hopes for a doctor son) helps construct his identity, so the merger of food and narrative voice feels appropriate and satisfying.
The Barbarians Are Coming offers a tale brimming with pathos and alienation. A very subdued current of sentiment runs throughout, subtly flavoring the story yet not overwhelming Sterling Lung; his individuality emerges intact, if scarred. In him, Louie has created a memorable character, a man wrestling with questions and intent on learning answers, even if he doesn't like them.
Mike Paulson teaches English at Penn State University.