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Hunger of Memory

THE BARBARIANS ARE COMING: A Novel; By David Wong Louie; Putnam: 372 pp., $23.95

March 12, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

There are meals, as Proust has told us, that unlock the vaults of memory, foods that guide us to emotions and traumas long-starved by the discipline of adulthood. How many of us remember those meals--the perfect crepes cooked by the girl across the hall, the double sauteed sliced pork rushed across campus by the guy in the distant dorm, the Sacher torte parachute-dropped by someone's stepfather on his way from Vienna to Buenos Aires?

All David Wong Louie has to do to start the memory glands salivating in his first novel, "The Barbarians Are Coming," is to invoke the spirit of the late '70s. It was a time when Richard Nixon was still very much in the public consciousness, along with Maureen Dean and the transsexual tennis star Renee Richards. It was also a time when multiculturalism hadn't yet become a postmodern concept but was omnipresent at the dinner tables of the starving postgraduates of America. Daughters of Holocaust survivors mixed with sons of Ghanaian princes, children of Russians with progeny of Koreans, as easily as sake with vermouth, universally complaining in their American-ness (between mouthfuls of kim chee and blintzes) of the tribal ignorance of their immigrant parents.

Sterling Lung, Louie's fictional alter ego, suffers from the Chinese American version of this second-generation angst. The American-born son of a pair of immigrants who have settled their family and their laundry business within the township of Lynbrook on Long Island.Sterling has run as far away as he can go. Although Sterling has taken the stereotypical Chinese occupation of cook, he has turned his back on the peasant cuisine of his ancestors, the "barefoot food, eat-with-sticks food. Under harvest moons, rinse off the maggots, slice, and steam . . . squatting-in-still-water food. Pole-across-your-shoulders, hooves-in-the-house food." A recent graduate of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), Sterling has become the Brillat-Savarin of the Connecticut country club set. Employed by the Richfield Ladies' Club, Sterling turns out gourmet French lunches for the chattering wives of the local Republicans, who love their Chinese cook's limpid body and lanky ponytail even more than his flambes.

This same lanky ponytail dismisses his parents' choice of bride, the daughter of a distant cousin, a picture-bride from Hong Kong. Sterling has chosen an American girlfriend for himself, a Jewish American dentist, to be precise. Conveniently for Sterling's American problem with commitment, Bliss Sass is studying in far-off Iowa. "Love is a lot like cooking," Sterling philosophizes. "When either is successful, there's a delicate chemistry in operation, a fine balance between the constituent parts. If you have the perfect recipe for vichyssoise, you don't monkey with it. We've had a workable arrangement. The U.S. Postal Service has kept us connected; we have a standing arrangement to take holidays together. That's plenty. Why spoil a good thing?"

For one, there is Sterling's inability to say no. So when a college friend recommends that Sterling cook dinner for a young girl passing through, what can the poor cook do but pick up a capon from his friendly butcher? And when the girl turns out to be a six-foot Amazon with the appetite of an Argonaut--" 'I got Inglenook red and white,' she says. 'I didn't know how you swing, so I blanketed the field.' "--and passes out naked on Sterling's bed just as Bliss rings the doorbell with the news that she's returned from Iowa with a pork bun in the oven, Sterling's only refuge is the Richfield Ladies' Club, where he passes the night in desperate frottage, marking his world with the liverish fervor of a Portnoy.

This opening is full of hilarious promise, farce garnished with food, Lucky Jim married to Dona Flor. But then Louie changes direction. The women, it turns out, are only appetizers for the main course: the long struggle between Sterling and his father. And struggle they do, over the course of 370 pages, several deaths, several near deaths and enough food to choke both the Amazon and the Jew (fortunately the women do turn up on occasion like palate cleansers). But there is something disconcerting about starting a meal with Amis, moving on to Roth and ending up with Turgenev for dessert.

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