Excerpt from The Barbarians Are Coming by David Wong Louie, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Barbarians Are Coming

By David Wong Louie

The Barbarians Are Coming
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2000,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2001,
    384 pages.

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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.

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.

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