Barbarians Are Coming

Barbarians Are Coming

by David Wong Louie

Paperback(Reissue)

$24.00

Overview

Winner of the 2000 Book Award in Prose from the Association for American Studies and the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for 2002!

The award-winning author of Pangs of Love triumphs with "a work that manages to be consistently funny, infinitely sad, and surprisingly exhilarating... truly memorable." (Newsday)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425178287
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/01/2001
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.55(w) x 8.21(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

David Wong Louie is the author of Pangs of Love, winner of the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and the Ploughshares First Book Award. He lives in Venice, California, and teaches at UCLA.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 1

Feast or famine. My plate is suddenly full. One day my Bliss is in Iowa, studying dentistry, gazing at the gums and decay of hog farmers and their kin. She claims she can eyeball a patient's teeth and see through to what's rotten. And now she's coming home for a quick visit, a thousand miles, without even the excuse of a national holiday or school calendar break. "Don't you have teeth to clean?" I asked hopefully when she called with the news. At my insistence we use long-distance sparingly, only when something truly important comes up. Since I'm still up in the air about our future as a couple, why throw away good money until I'm sure about what I'm doing: it's the difference between carnations for her birthday and a cashmere sweater. I have us writing postcards back and forth. Short and sweet, public enough so things can never get too involved or serious. A picture's worth a thousand words.

Here's the rest of the picture: I am twenty-six years old, and was recently anointed the new resident chef at the Richfield Ladies' Club in Richfield, Connecticut. I make lunch and tea, and in the evenings I'm on my own. A few weeks back, an old classmate at the CIA (that's the Culinary Institute of America), Jim King, now pastry chef for one of the Kennedy widows, and hating it, told an acquaintance of his who had just started her course work at the Yale Graduate School of Design to call me if she ever wanted a great home-cooked meal. Her name is Lisa Lee, and as she put it when she phoned and invited herself to dinner, "Sterling Lung, King says you're fabulous. He said I'd like you even if you couldn't cook." I was flattered, of course, but as soon as we hung up, I felt crowded by her presumptions, as I do whenever some know-it-all enters my kitchen and counsels me on ways to improve whatever I have on the stove: more salt, more pepper, or once even more cardamom.

To my credit, I did try to discourage her with the warning that New Haven is clear across the state, a solid two-and-a-half-hour drive away. "How can that be?" she said. "We're in the same area code." I couldn't imagine what Jim King might have told her; Lisa Lee was undaunted. "I'm sure you'll make the drive worthwhile."

In bed that night I puzzled over the phone call. Why had Lisa Lee been put up to this? I tried to contact Jim King, but was unsuccessful; the alumni office at the CIA wouldn't divulge his exact whereabouts, a condition of his employment. I mulled over the facts, scarce as they were. Finally I decided: Jim King must have a stake in this, he must be in pursuit of this Lisa Lee and is simply using me as bait. My role is that of a culinary Cupid. Fair enough. One day I'll call in the favor, have King set me up with a Kennedy.

I was so pleased with my revelation that I bounced out of bed and wrote to Bliss. On the back of a John and Yoko postcard (it's their wedding day), I should've known better, but I spilled the beans. I put it all down, except the bit about King and the debt he'll repay with a Kennedy.

I'm innocent; totally up-front, right? But honesty isn't enough for Bliss. She'll never admit it, but some corn-yellow tooth is going to go unpulled because she's jealous, in love, and coming east to protect what she believes is hers.

So it goes, the laden table, the overflowing cup.

I'm talking to Fuchs, the butcher I buy from. "How about a nice capon?" Fuchs says. He has muttonchop sideburns and a nose with hairs like alfalfa sprouts. I grimace; with his talk of capons, Fuchs suddenly assumes a sinister, perverted cast.

I've never cooked capon before. Serving castrated rooster isn't my bag. All I want is a four-, four-and-a-half-pounder, a biggish bird so Lisa Lee won't think I'm going cheap on her.

Fuchs tears off a square of orange butcher paper, which he lays on the scale, then plops the bird on top. "Fresh," he says. "Be my guest, take a whiff. Fuchs won't steer you wrong. Pound for pound, you can't buy better than this."

Cool refrigerated air rises off the dank yellow skin. "I'm surprised at you, Fuchs. I would think you'd be more sympathetic to his plight," I say, fingering the ex-rooster.

"Why? Because I'm a member of the tribe? Because I was circumcised?"

"No. Because you have one to circumcise." I poke the bird. "Us guys have got to stick together, Fuchs. Think about it: Snip! And as if that's not bad enough, they throw him back in with the others to plump, big and fat, and he struts around like cocks do, big man in barnyard, only the hens are snickering behind his back. Think how he must've felt."

"Sterling, what gives? Since when did you become psychologist to the poultry world?" He wraps the capon, ties the bundle with brown twine. "Hey, speaking of snip, how about what's-her-name, the one they let play against the ladies at the U.S. Open last year. Whatever happened to her--or should I say 'him'?" Renee Richards, tennis pro, who in a recent former life was Richard Raskind, medical doctor. I remember the first time I saw her in the newspaper, she was in her tennis whites, in one of those ridiculously skimpy skirts female players wear in order to show off their panties. I was immediately drawn to her looks, found her rather sexy even, that is, until I read the accompanying article detailing her surgical transformation. "Can't tell a she from a he?" I scolded myself. "What kind of man are you?"

A woman enters the store. A young housewife dressed in an outfit; her shoes, belt, and lipstick match. Fuchs snaps back to his business mode: "So how many of these capons would you like, sir? I guarantee you, the ladies at the club will adore this flesh."

The new customer is browsing the beef-pork-lamb end of the refrigerated case. I look at her, then at Fuchs, who rolls his eyes and whispers, "That one was never a doctor."

I nod; he's got that right! "That's it for today," I say.

"Hey, these birds are meaty," Fuchs says, "but just one won't feed that crowd at the club."

"It's not for the ladies." I laugh nervously. "I have this art student from Yale, a total stranger, coming for dinner. A friend of a friend, that sort of thing."

"Why so glum? Yale, you say. At least she's smart."

"How do you know she's a she?"

"Because a guy gets hamburger. She," he indicates the housewife, with a tip of his head, "gets the bird."

"You're right, she's a she. Lisa Lee."

"Chinese too, Sterling! Better than good."

I stare at Fuchs as though he were a freak, natural or manmade, himself a capon. "Why're you looking at me like Madame Chiang Kai-shek just burst from my forehead?"

I shake the shock from my eyes. "I never imagined she might be Chinese."

"Madame Chiang?"

"No, Lisa Lee."

The other customer sets her purse on top of the meat case.

To her Fuchs says, "I'm almost through here, miss." To me he says, "Lee's a Chinese name. Am I right?"

"Sure, but I've been thinking Robert E. Lee. Vivien Leigh. Sara Lee."

"And don't forget Richard Day-lee and F. Lee Bay-lee."

"Be serious."

"And there's that jujitsu guy--Bruce Lee." Fuchs scratches his bald spot. "Geez, when you think of it, hardly anyone's Chinese."

I hand over some money. Fuchs offers to charge the purchase to the Ladies' Club account.

"Personal use."

"Boy, you Chinese are honest," Fuchs says. "Well, I wish I was in your shoes, having a blind date like that." He winks, and at that moment, as half his face collapses, I see him as a man from an earlier time in human history, someone who could effortlessly tilt back the chin of a lamb and slash its throat.

Leaving the store, I hear Fuchs say to his customer, "So, I see you like looking at meat-"

I walk to the Ladies' Club with the capon bundle under my arm. I know Fuchs must be right. Hanging around death as he does all day, he sees things. Lisa Lee is Chinese, which explains why Jim King has put her up to our meeting; he thinks we'll make a cute couple together, a pair of matching bookends.

I try to imagine Lisa Lee and immediately conjure up my sisters. I see them, one after the other, their faces like post office mug shots, and under their chins, instead of a serial number, is a plaque that reads "Lisa Lee." I know it's wrongheaded, even a bit spooky, and entirely indicative of bad wiring inside me, but in my heart every Chinese woman registers as an aunt, my mother, my sisters, or the Hong Kong girl whose picture my mother keeps taped to the kitchen mirror. They hold no romantic interest for me.

I pass Kim the greengrocer. People in town think he is Chinese. I backtrack, enter the store. Lisa Lee: bean sprouts, snow peas. I rarely do business with Kim, who charges four times wholesale and won't cut me a break, ripping me off, his Asian brother, along with everyone else. Six bucks a pound for snow peas! Kim's making a mint and getting fat, even his wire-rims look fat. And he speaks only enough English to kiss up to the housewives with his "America is good place," "You look nice," "Cheap, cheap" stuff. With me, he doesn't bother-what is another Oriental going to get him?

I pay, and feel pickpocketed. My own money, and what's it going to get me? "Not so cheap," I say to Kim, with a smile, angling for a discount. But he just eyes me, a stray that's wandered in off the street.

"You not have to buy," he says, and shrugs.

Normally I have no use for bean sprouts and snow peas, even at half the price. They are not part of who I am as a chef. But just as tennis requires a can of balls, a milkshake a drinking straw, a dinner guest named Lisa Lee requires the appropriate vegetable matter. "Blind date," I say, holding my purchases up by my ear. I can see from Kim's blank expression that he has failed to grasp my meaning: he can't see that my hands are tied, that I must go against the grain, that under routine circumstances I wouldn't tolerate this economic exploitation.

Kim says, "America is land of plenty. Why you want a blind girl for?"

When I get home-that is, the small apartment that comes with the job, four hundred square feet, the top floor of the carriage house in the rear of the Ladies' Club property-I find a postcard from Bliss in the mail. A giant ear of corn that takes up the entire length of a flat-bed truck. She alternates between sending the mutant-corn postcard and sending the one of the colossal hog with antelope horns. She writes: "A guy comes in complaining about a toothache but he doesn't know which tooth aches. The X rays don't know any better, and neither
do my professors. But then I had a hunch, this feeling; I borrowed a light and checked his eyes and his ears. And bingo! There was a moth in there and a foot of yarn! When it was all over, Moth Ears asked me out for a beer. He said, 'Are you spoken for?' I had never heard it put that way. Sterling, have you spoken for me? I love you. See you Friday, the 16th."

I check the calendar. Today is Friday, the fifteenth. Is she coming today, or tomorrow, the sixteenth? Friday, as she says, or Saturday? Something's wrong. As much as I hate having to do so, I have to phone her, paying premium daytime rates, no less. When she doesn't answer, I'm relieved, spared the toll charges--though I know that's an inappropriate response. She's probably already in the air. I need to straighten the matter out. I try Lisa Lee's number; she isn't at home either. Perhaps both are speeding, in opposite directions-Lisa Lee from the east, Bliss from the west--to the same trembling destination.

I rinse the bird, salt its body cavity, and curse Fuchs. Before Fuchs, Lisa Lee was just a hungry student coming for a home-cooked meal; a stranger shows up uninvited at your door, you feed him. Or her. There's a right and a wrong, and I was prepared to do the right thing. In the end even Bliss wouldn't have objected to that. But talking to Fuchs has put me in a fix. Now my innocent little dinner, my mission of mercy, has transformed into a date. With a Chinese girl, of all things!

Bliss and I had been seeing each other on a regular basis for only a few months when she asked me to move with her to Iowa and set up house. I told her no, I had my job with the ladies. She then offered to defer the start of her second year of dental school and stay with me. Fearing the escalation in the level of our commitment to each other such a sacrifice would signify, I had to tell her no again. I was flattered, but was even more bewildered by her eagerness to alter her plans. In my eyes we were, at best, a fringe couple. Yes, we were going out. Sleeping together. I was happy to have her in my life. I was new in town, knocking myself out trying to impress my employers, and if I'd been living close to friends, in familiar surroundings, I might not have indulged the relationship as I did. We were pals, we hung out, we ate lots of food, we drank good wine, we had sex occasionally. But moving in together, in the Midwest? Was she kidding? That was far beyond where I was. The trouble then, as now, was that I never meant for things to get too serious. At the risk of sounding like a junior high schooler: I liked her but I didn't love her.

I towel off the capon, massage mustard onto its skin. It feels no different from any of the hundreds of chickens I've cooked, but I can't get used to touching this thing. Bliss would have no qualms; after all, she wants to drill teeth for a living. Nothing seems to bother her. When she wedged her way into my life, arriving unannounced like an angel with a pot of soup, I was sick, a vibrating mass of germs, but she laid on her hands and helped me undress and made my bed and massaged my back and sat nearby, singing French folk songs and Joni Mitchell. I couldn't sleep because of the singing but was too polite, indeed, too beholden, indeed, too afraid to ask her to cut short her concert--that was what it was, for she seemed to pause between songs for imaginary applause. The moment came when I dislodged my arm, which was pillowing my head, and swung it down to my hip, cutting wide arcs that I hoped would alert her to the fact I was still awake and miserable, bored, and ready for surrender.

On one of these sweeps she grabbed my hand--later she would argue I had offered it to her--and when my arm pendulumed up toward my head, she leapt out of her chair like a fish from the sea. Without the slightest break in her song she was lured into my bed--so goes her version of how we ended up making love that first time. As we lay naked between the sheets, chills from the fever stiffening my body, she held me to her enormous heat and asked if she might come again, another day, with more soup, and unsteadily, I said, "Yes."

I admit I was the one who had made first contact. Soon after I arrived in Richfield, I saw her name in our college alumni magazine and called her. We had been marginal friends at Swarthmore, both art history majors, but she was a couple of classes ahead of me, and we traveled in different social circles (her group was acid and orgies; mine was wine and one-night stands). After running hard with the "in crowd" her first four semesters, she turned serious as a junior, finding peace in the study of Gothic cathedrals. At the art history majors' costume party during her Senior Week, we spoke for the first time. She went as Notre Dame, a dishwasher box, with splendidly painted details of the original and posterboard flying buttresses hanging off at her sides like spider legs; her face was that of a gargoyle. Guys joked about coming to worship, going on a pilgrimage. I went as Warhol's Brillo box. Our costumes were huge hits but left us on the sidelines, victims of our own genius--what a drag trying to boogie with your body in a cardboard box.

When I tracked her down at her parents' place in New Canaan, she was completely surprised. We met for lunch on one of my first off-days from the Ladies' Club. She was no longer the hippie she'd been in school. While her long, frizzy brown hair was still her most distinguishing attribute, in the four years since I had last seen her she had lost the roundness in her face and had traded in her T-shirts and Indian print skirts for tailored clothing. Between graduation and dental school, she had worked for her father, who owned and managed properties and acquired things. Even though she slept under his roof and received a salary from him, she seemed to harbor boundless hostility toward her father. In her lingo, he was "capitalist pig scum," who apparently felt morally justified in his own brand of bigotry because his parents were Holocaust survivors. After the initial weekend lunches at local restaurants, I invited her to my apartment for dinner. Then came the day she showed up at my door with the soup.

I rub the mustard onto the capon's skin, with its largish pores and nipple-like bumps; the mustard's whole seeds, tiny orbs rolling between my palm and the lubricated skin, produce a highly erotic sensation.

The telephone rings and I jump, embarrassed by the pleasure I'm taking. My mind leaps from the capon to Lisa Lee. She must be calling to cancel our date; perhaps she has a project due and can't come to dinner.

But the instant I lift the receiver I realize I don't want to hear that message at all.

"I'm here! I'm here, I'm here, I'm here!"

It's Bliss. Originally, she explains, she planned to fly in tomorrow, but a classmate, Ray, has a wedding to attend in Greenwich, and she caught a ride, saving money, his drive-buddy. At this moment they are outside Syracuse, still hours shy of Connecticut.

"I'm skipping my parents," she says. She sounds all juiced up, still speedy from the road. "It's a hit-and-run visit. I'm not even stopping in, they'll want to feed me, take me shopping, you know, monopolize my time. I'm going to stay with you."

Love is a lot like cooking. 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 agreement to take holidays together. That's plenty. Why spoil a good thing?

"We're going to stop by Randazzo's," Bliss says. "Come join us. I'm letting Ray buy me drinks." She informs me that Ray is a third-year dental student; he has been "a good help" to her, and twice has taken her hunting for ring-necked pheasant in the harvested cornfields.

"I'm stuck here," I tell her. "I'm experimenting with a new recipe." Which is the truth.

"Always other women," she says.

I hear the sarcasm in her voice, understand she means the club ladies I have to feed, but suspect she also means Lisa Lee. For a moment I consider putting an end to the intrigue, inviting her and that guy Ray to join us for dinner. A foursome around the table. Me and Bliss. Ray and Lisa Lee. At the mere thought of such a pairing I experience a biting pang of jealousy.

"Silvy, what's the matter?" she says, into the silent line. "It's me, Bliss. Are you upset with me? Come on, tell me. Do you feel threatened by Ray?"

I keep seeing the four of us around the table; Ray, some generic Midwesterner in a hunting cap and ammo vest, and Lisa Lee, who at that moment I imagine as my sister Lucy.

"It's true we spent the night together in the car. But he's just a friend."

I stay silent.
"I'm sorry. Nothing happened. Don't be that way. You know me. I'm already spoken for."

After we hang up I try to reach Lisa Lee again. No answer, of course, she's also on her way. But I don't panic. Bliss has hundreds of miles to go, a couple of hours' drinking at Randazzo's. If I'm really lucky she'll catch dinner there.

She fills the doorway, her head and its swirl of dark hair eclipse the early-evening sun. Her face is in shadow. She stabs jugs of wine into the room: "I got Inglenook red and white," she says. "I didn't know how you swing, so I blanketed the field."

I backpedal from the door, and as soon as I vacate a space, Lisa Lee fills it.

She is six feet tall. My first thought is, Where is Lisa Lee, the Chinese Lisa Lee that Fuchs had promised, where is she in this high-rise protoplasm? Still, I can't help noticing her beauty, the cool sort, good American bones and narrow green eyes. I've seen her before, especially the gangliness, the I-beam angularity in her cheeks, through her shoulders.

Then it hits me, like the icicle that fell six stories and opened my head when I was a boy: She can pass for Renee Richards's double.

"Are you all right?" she asks. "Didn't King tell you?"

Tell me what, that she, Lisa Lee, was once a he?

"It's okay. You can stare," she says. "I'm used to it, people are always gawking at my size."

She eats and drinks lustily; she has so much space to fill. I think of horses I've seen, their magnificent dimensions, the monumental daily task of keeping their bodies stoked. For all the energy and attention she gives to her food, she maintains a nonstop conversation, remarkable for its seamless splice of words, breaths, bites, and swallows. "What do you call these?" she says, helping herself to the snow peas.

"Snow peas."

"No," she says. "I mean in Chinese."

I ask about her studies. I don't comprehend much of her response. It's all very abstract, highly theoretical. But in the end she confesses that what she's truly into is interior design. Every designer with a name in Milan and New York, she begins, is a man. She says this has to change. Women are cooped up in their homes all day, surrounded by things designed by men. "Knives and forks," she says, "is macho eating. Stab and cut, out on the hunt." She critiques my flatware, my stemware, my dishes. It's junk, cheap stuff, but she's a grad student and finds things to say, just as Bliss is awed by exotic gum diseases.

She loads up on capon. I've barely touched any of the bird, too much excitement, and I'm still too squeamish. Call it cross-species male solidarity. But I love watching someone enjoy my cooking, especially a woman, one who eats (there's no other way of putting it) like a man, with pig-at-the-trough mindlessness, so different from Bliss, with her on-again, off-again diets, her sensitivity to ingredients, her likes and dislikes, allergies, calorie counts, moral guidelines.

Lisa Lee takes on a leg, itself almost a pound of flesh. As she sinks her teeth into the perfectly browned skin, my mind explodes with the inevitable question: Why Bliss? How can she say she loves me if she doesn't love all of me, including my food? What am I but a cook? You love me, love what I cook! How should I regard a so-called lover who would extract essential ingredients from my dishes, capers, for instance, her fingers pinching the offending orbs like fleas off a dog, then flicking them onto the table, as if she had seen Warning: Radioactive Materials printed on each itty-bitty bud. I imagine Bliss encountering the roasted capon, which to a normal diner like Lisa Lee is just a plump bird. But Bliss has an uncanny knack for putting two and two together, even when there isn't a two and two to put together. "What are you trying to do to me?" she would say, her suspicions touching me like the worst accusation, and I would hang my head in shame, accepting responsibility for the rooster's sad fate, feeling the tug of its peppercorn-sized testicles that guilt has strung around my neck. Souvenirs of war. Men! Disgusted with me and the bird, she would go on diets: For days, no meat. For weeks, no sex.

Lisa Lee relinquishes her knife and fork. "That was so good! You're everything King said you'd be." She smiles, greasy lips, a fleck of capon skin on her chin like a beauty mark. Her satisfied look pleases me to no end. I start to clear the table. The jug of white she brought is gone. Amazing we choked down so much cheap wine. "If you're a man," she says, "you'll uncap the other bottle." In the kitchen I set down the dishes, and as I open the red, the telephone rings.

"We're on Eighty-four, near Poughkeepsie," Bliss reports. They're at a rest area, making use of the facilities. "I'm going to skip the drinks with Ray. I've already worried you enough about him. I'm so, so sorry."

I watch as Lisa Lee stacks the dirty dishes. What remarkable size! An infinite capacity to consume and thereby to love. Her mastications were gestures of love. She catches me staring, holds a finger perpendicular to her lips, admonishing herself to keep quiet. She seems to know who it is I'm talking to, seems familiar and comfortable with situations of this sort. She steps free of her noisy shoes, and as I watch her move toward me, I wish I could just as easily step from my entanglement with Bliss. Pluck her from my life as cold-bloodedly as she would a bay leaf from a stew I've made, a tooth from someone's head.

"Don't change your plans because of me," I say. "You like Randazzo's. Have some drinks. I'll see you afterwards. I'm not going anywhere."

Lisa Lee takes the opened jug of red from my hands, fishes a glass from the sink, pours, and drinks. I watch her swallow, the little hitch in her throat; if only the hitch were the clasp of a zipper that ran down to her navel, which unzipped revealed Lisa Lee's Chinese self. I want this to happen for Bliss's sake: should she arrive while Lisa Lee is still here, I could simply pass her off as my cousin. Bliss would love her.

I check my watch. With or without drinks they can't possibly get here before I've served coffee and dessert and sent Lisa Lee on her way.

I get off the phone with Bliss. We leave things hanging. I'll take care of business on my end; I can't worry about what I can't control.

"Where does this go?" Lisa Lee holds the platter containing the remains of the capon.

"Let me take that. I'll pack you some leftovers to take home."

"What kind of man are you?" she says, welding hands to hips. "You're going to make me drive all that way, in my condition?"

Do I have a choice? True, the picture of her backing down the driveway is frightening enough, forget the two and a half hours on the interstate. The decent thing to do would be to tuck her safely into my bed for the night. But Bliss stands in the way of such a right and moral act. What Lisa Lee needs is sleep, to pass the hours of her overindulgence out of harm's way. A night's undisturbed digestion, then, upon waking, to eat and love again. Bliss will deny her, her well-deserved rest. So much more the pity, sleep the simple thing it is. It's a staggering thought, yet I know that before the night is through I will do Bliss's bidding. She will insist that Lisa Lee must go. And should Lisa Lee, heaven forbid, doze while she's behind the wheel and jump the center divider, a grand jury surely will charge Bliss, not me. Still, what comfort is that?

Reprinted from The Barbarians Are Coming by David Wong Louie by permission of G.P. Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by David Wong Louie. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“If The Barbarians Are Coming weren’t so funny, it would kill you.”—Boston Sunday Globe

“An ambitious and appealing first novel, brilliant in its scathing insights…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…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.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Louie ranks with the best of a new generation of American novelists. And when it comes to Asian-American themes, he’s as funny as Gish Jen [and] as eloquent as Chang-rae Lee…His first novel is truly memorable.”—Newsday

“A story about cooking and loving, often as sensual as Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, but also as bitingly funny as Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity…an intoxicating, heady trip, a feast of a novel.”—Seattle Weekly

“One of the most moving father-son stories in decades…a knowing, witty take on the immigrant experience.”—*Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The Barbarians Are Coming begins in farce, proceeds to elusively edgy, laugh-so-you-don’t-cry comedy and concludes in heart-wrenching drama. Though a first-time novelist, Louie has directed it all with a master’s deft hand…Sterling is a brightly lit figure, part aspiring Horatio Alger, part pathetic Woody Allen, part creative James Beard.”—Newsday

“This is humor in the Swiftian sense: piercing and satirical and delivering something far larger than comedy for its own sake…David Wong Louie’s story [is] as generously, utterly, American as it is eloquently precise.”—Boston Sunday Globe

“A novel of wit, insight, and power.”—Elle

“Sterling’s interactions with his primarily Chinese-speaking parents, Genius and Zsa Zsa, are often hilarious.”—Book

“Full of astonishing writing.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Taut, witty prose.”—Seattle Weekly

“David Wong Louie whips up a kind of reverse feast in his masterful first novel, The Barbarians Are Coming, beginning with a frothy comic dessert and egging us on to the main course, a heartbreaking tragedy about fathers and sons, dashed hopes and missed opportunities for love…a mature, richly characterized family saga whose universal themes take it far beyond the category of ethnic fiction.”—San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“As grandly comic as an American carnival and as tragic as any Chinese opera.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
The Barbarians Are Coming

In a tale that alternates between black comedy and out-an-out slapstick, between the pain of a son alienated from his father and a father an alien in his son's native land, The Barbarians Are Coming reveals the deep psychic wounds each man has suffered even as it ultimately leads to a reconciliation that is as moving as it is necessary. Here is a tale of the immigrant experienceæindeed, of the American experience: of the deracination of the second generation and the wrenching losses of the first.

ABOUT DAVID WONG LOUIE

David Wong Louie was born and raised in New York. He received a Bachelor's Degree in English from Vassar College and an MFA from the university of Iowa. His first book, the story collection Pangs of Love, won The Los Angeles Times Book Review First Fiction Award, the Ploughshares First Fiction Book Award, was a New York Times Book Review Notable of 1991 and a Voice Literary Supplement Favorite of 1991. Louie currently teaches in the Department of English and the Asian-American Studies Center at UCLA. He lives in Venice, California with his wife and son.

PRAISE FOR DAVID WONG LOUIE

"An ambitious and appealing first novel, brilliant in its scathing insights… 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."
--Publishers Weekly

"Louie is elegant, funny, a touch spooky, and he has as fine a hair-trigger control of alienation and absurdity as any of the best of his generation"
--Richard Eder, New York Newsday

"Louie's work transcends the restrictions of ethnic labels and markets: He's not just a talented young Asian-American writer; he's a talented young write, period."
--Charles Solomon, Los Angeles Times Book Review

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. The names of characters have a special significance in The Barbarians Are Coming especially in relation to nationality. Genius and Zsa Zsa are given their American names by Lucy with a sense of ridicule and these names become permanent. Are Genius and Zsa Zsa aware of the mockery implied by these names? If so, why do they choose to accept them as opposed to selecting their own?
  2. Food, eating and cooking are intimately tied to the personalities of the members of the Lung family. What do you learn about Sterling, Genius and Zsa Zsa from their relationships with food?
  3. What qualities does Yuk possess that endear her to Genius and Zsa Zsa and spur their desire to have Sterling marry her? Are these qualities absent in Sterling and, if so, is their absence a result of a conscious effort by Sterling to abandon them? Is there a sense of resentment on Sterling's part caused by the relationship that Yuk has with Sterling's parents?
  4. Sterling's communication with other characters is often marred by difficulties. He and Bliss interact better in writing than in person, there is constant conflict with his parents regarding speaking English, he and Yuk experience confusion concerning the phrase "move the bed". What elements of Sterling's character contribute to these difficulties?
  5. In addition to being the patriarch of his own family, Morton Sass takes on the role of father figure to Sterling after his marriage to Bliss. However Morton also serves as Sterling's boss for "The Peeking Duck." How does each relationship influence the other? Does either of these relationships emerge as the dominant one?
  6. Sterling feels a stronger connection to Ira than he does to Moses even though there is a lack of physical resemblance between the father and his younger son. What factors bind Sterling and Ira together? Is the fact that Ira appears "American" a component of Sterling's affection toward him?
  7. Both Sterling and Genius exhibit tendencies toward unfaithfulness in terms of their significant relationships with women. Is this a sign of their overall attitude toward the gender or an indication of a lack of stability in their lives? To what extent do you imagine the lives of these two men would have be different if they had been married to other women (Genius to Lucy, Sterling to Yuk)?
  8. In Part III of the novel the author changes the concentration of the narrative, focusing on Genius' past as opposed to the present. What effect is achieved by doing so? Does the reader gain a greater sympathy for the character from knowing his personal

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