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Meeting the Twain : PANGS OF LOVE: Stories, By David Wong Louie (Alfred A. Knopf: $19; 227 pp.)

June 16, 1991|RICHARD EDER

To define America by saying that it is not Chinese does not seem to say very much. Yet David Wong Louie says it in his short stories, and it tells us something about ourselves in a way that is oddly revealing.

The first-generation Chinese immigrants in several of these stories are past-clingers, an embarrassment to their up-to-date Chinese-American children. Yet what they cling to--their language, their sense of family, tradition, and lineage past and to come--and their puzzlement that in America these things are not much valued, have a different quality than they do in Jewish-American, Irish-American or Italian-American novels. There, the old people possess a kind of truth and wisdom, but there is no question that their children's assimilation is unstoppable.

The young Chinese Americans in these stories seem to have no such certainty. Their parents' values, however they struggle with them, prevail in some fashion, and raise questions about the assimilation. It is not a fading of the old world in the new; it is more like a standoff between an old civilization that retains a stubborn vitality, and a new one whose assurance and success have developed cracks. The fire has cooled, or the melting point has risen, or the pot has deteriorated.

It must be said right off that Louie is the furthest thing from a genre ethnic writer. He is elegant, funny, a touch spooky, and has as fine a hair-trigger control of alienation and absurdity as any of the best of his generation. The odd plight of his young Chinese Americans is an illuminating special symptom in a wider malaise.

Here, in "Birthday," is Wallace Wong--it is nice to see an author asserting kinship with his characters--sitting at a kiddy desk in the child's bedroom he has locked himself into. The child's father is pounding at the door.

Wong (the author) makes a particular use of puzzling beginnings. They evolve into perfect clarity, as if a foreign language were being translated successfully but with difficulty. Wong (the character) is American, successful, the proprietor of a trendy coffee shop. Yet here, in this house, he is in a foreign country.

Wong had been living with a divorced woman and her little boy, Welby. He had suffered through her painful custody fight with Frank, her former husband; Wong loves Welby as his son. Frank, a successful screenwriter--his big hit was the story of his broken marriage--outguns the wife and wins Welby.

She moves away, and Wong is bewilderingly abandoned. He had promised to take Welby to a baseball game on his birthday; when he goes to the house, Frank bars his way. Frank needs to reestablish himself with his son, he explains, first politely and then with increasing irritation as Wong insists on coming in.

Finally, Wong bolts past him, and up to Welby's room--the boy is away for the day-and locks himself in. As Frank pounds at the door and then withdraws to give him a chance to leave, Wong makes a crayon drawing of the child's favorite animals as a message for him. But he notices that the room is filled with new toys: rocket ships and spacemen. He already has lost touch; all he can do on his way out is make frosting for the birthday cake that Frank had baked and left unfinished in the kitchen.

Displacement--finding oneself in a house one is not supposed to be in, or where one cannot stay--is a recurring situation in these stories. So is abandonment by one's wife or lover. In "Social Science," a young man is allowed by the landlady to stay on in the rented house that Marybeth, his wife, had walked out of. However, he is obliged to show it to a bizarre series of would-be purchasers, one of whom is after Marybeth as well. In "Movers," a man is left in an unfurnished house when his wife leaves just after they move in. In neither case are the protagonists ethnically identified, but their situation--groping for a traditional hold on a perpetually shifting American life--is similar to that of the young Chinese Americans in other stories.

In "Bottles of Beaujolais" and "Love on the Rocks," the Chinese-American protagonists are estranged into odd, dreamlike extremes. Both stories are unsettling and ingeniously told, but they have a contrived, rather brittle air.

Two of the best stories pit young Chinese Americans against the values of an older generation. In "Inheritance," the protagonist is a young woman, a radical activist whose mother, sister and brother are dead and whose father, Edsel, is a Chinatown businessman. He is gentle and patient with her strange ways, proud of being an American but, at heart, a "very old-world Chinese."

He is pleased that she has married another Chinese, even though he is a "Communist"--i.e., a new arrival from China. He wants a grandson, and is horrified when he sees his daughter in a strident television protest against the bombing of a family-planning center by anti-abortionists. "When a Chinese is not cooking on the TV we know it is trouble," Edsel says.

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