Rebel Son

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Assimilation's woes in a sprightly first novel

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Rebel Son
Assimilation's woes in a sprightly first novel

How You Can Get Those Airline Upgrades
History Comes Tumbling Down It is the late 1970s, and Sterling Lung, 26, the son of Chinese immigrants, believes he has struggled free from the clutches of his parents' old-fashioned expectations. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, where, he says, he was named most likely to serve, Sterling is the chef at the Richfield Ladies' Club in green and tastefully affluent Connecticut. When one of the ladies praises his ponytail and guesses that he wears it in honor of his forebears back in China, Sterling muses, My forebears? Think Beatles, Jerry Garcia.

In other words, David Wong Louie's The Barbarians Are Coming (Putnam; 372 pages) opens as a sprightly novel of assimilation, a rich tradition in American literature that has constantly been refurbished by new immigrants and their restive, talented children.

Louie, a professor at ucla and the author of Pangs of Love, a highly praised 1991 collection of stories, initially plays his rebellious hero's story for laughs. But serious matters begin to tax Sterling's sense of humor. His parents have sent money to a young woman in Hong Kong so she can fly to the U.S. and become his bride. His father is ill, perhaps dying. And Bliss, his American girlfriend who is studying dentistry in Iowa, announces that she is pregnant with their child. Beset on all sides, Sterling says, I worry I have lost my will to cook.

That isn't the only deprivation that Sterling suffers in the course of the novel. What begins in comedy ends in pathos, with the hero wiser and sadder at the end. The Barbarians Are Coming may seem like two novels, not particularly well matched, but both of them are readable and fascinating.