David Wong Louie was born in Rockville Center, N.Y., in 1954. His father had come over from China in the '40s; his mother followed in the early '50s. His parents owned a string of laundries. He speaks to me now from his office at Vassar, where he teaches creative writing. Getting answers from him is like pulling teeth. (Actually, it's more like he's pulling my leg. When I asked if he has brothers or sisters, he answers--with a muted laugh, a rasp in his voice--"Three siblings." I mean, why should he break it down into brothers and sisters for me? Why should he make it easy ?)
"I went to public high school," he said. "I was the high school poet." Again, there's no way of conveying the irony in his voice, the surreal quality he conveys. Without putting it into words over the phone, he is saying: From laundries to being the high school poet! "I wrote about broken-heartedness," he says, "and some political commentaries." He went on to become an undergraduate at Vassar, where, imitating his high school stuff, he wrote "horrible poetry."
He graduated, had "one bad year in advertising," began writing short stories, enrolled in graduate school at the University of Iowa; became a writer. And put together the dazzling set of short stories that make up "Pangs of Love," a collection that may best be described by one of its titles: "One Man's Hysteria--Real and Imagined--in the 20th Century." In this narrative, the hero, poor beleaguered fellow, is so strung out, so befuddled by the prospect of missiles, the whole Atomic Age, that he takes up the reading of poetry. Intoning lines from George Herbert and Henry Vaughan to his lady love, he manages to comfort neither her nor himself: "While the world teeters ever closer to Armageddon, my most urgent need is to propagate my species. I want a child to bear my name into the future, its bleakness notwithstanding. But I know a child will be ineffectual against the fallout, the light, the infection." Meanwhile, his fictional lady love, bored equally by poetry and the end of the world, begs her lover: "Stephen . . . get me out of this story."
David Wong Louie's fictional world is marvelous for the reader but hell on the people inside it. He's a man at the end of his tether, faced with the horror of assimilation into a totally foreign and incomprehensible society; a world with no place to turn. It's so damn awful it's funny. In "Bottles of Beaujolais," another strung-out hero, Chinese, works in a sashimi bar for a tough and terrible Japanese boss who owns--for display--an otter in a climate-controlled store-front window. When the narrator finally lands a date with a Caucasian girl, they repair to that window with the otter for furry company. The girl is strange. Her would-be lover is desperate to please. They have first-date conversation about wines. She craves red wine, but in this restaurant there is only sake on hand. Without thinking twice about it, the creepy girl takes a sashimi knife and slashes her escort: "She took my hand and smelled mischievously. She squeezed it over the funnel until blood streaked from palm to heel, where droplets hung like lizard tongues . . . in time, we had translated sake into a bottle of Beaujolais."
Translating East to West in any fashion is a painful matter. It doesn't come easily. And yet the stories in "Pangs of Love" are crazy and funny. (How else do you transcend despair?) "I'm trying to be entertaining," David Wong Louie says, "and to move people in a certain way. And I don't think of myself as a depressed person." Yet his next work, a novel, has, as its working title, "The Barbarians Are Coming." At first he won't talk about it. "The novel? Hey, come on! Novel. The novel? Oh dear. Hmm. Well. It's sort of about . . ." Then he says: "See, the Chinese regard white folk as barbarians. And in America, they regard their own kids as barbarians. But these kids see their own parents as barbaric as well. I don't want to sound too reductive about it, but this is about a guy, who, by the end of the novel, reclaims his father, and his son reclaims him."
Does David Wong Louie have a son?
Well, what's his name? "Jules."
It's worth saying here that the Chinese in America have maintained a long-standing tradition of silence. When Maxine Hong Kingston began to write, writer Frank Chin excoriated her for breaking the silence. For telling Chinese tales to uncomprehending barbarians. While Amy Tan has enjoyed great success, dozens of Chinese undergraduates stubbornly maintain, "My mother says she didn't get anything right. Not one thing right at all." Gus Lee was able to write "China Boy," but perhaps only because he had--of all people--Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf for a mentor.
To say that David Wong Louie is unique is to state the pure truth. He has broken the silence of Chinese men in America. He has done it with elegance, wit, style, erudition and a pure respect for the silence itself. Each sentence shows the agony of intense distillation; each paragraph perfectly balances self-doubt, self-torture, self-confidence. He is the perfect recipient of the very first Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.
Art Seidenbaum! He would have loved to meet this first recipient. In some ways, they are twin souls. Art Seidenbaum worked for the Times since time immemorial. He was a columnist, pecking out his work when there were still typewriters in the building, and then a television bon vivant, searching out good times in L.A. with his buddy, Charles Champlin. When Art became book editor here, he brought with him the twin standards of impossibly high ethics and impossibly low jokes. Art fretted about any critic who might double-cross an author, at the same time he stole the shoes of secretaries who might have been imprudent enough to have kicked them off, so that at five, they couldn't go home.
Art Seidenbaum was a happy man, blessed with a great job and a wonderful life and equally wonderful kids. He put forth great effort and generosity to help young writers, so it's totally appropriate that the award named for him should be for First Fiction. But there was a wild streak in Art, a love of the zany and far-out for its own sake. He would have loved the idea of a Chinese boy in the storefront of the Japanese restaurant, courting a Caucasian girl, chaperoned by a frisky otter, donating his own blood to turn sake into Beaujolais. Art would have seen the desperation too. Which is why he was such a great editor, and, to writers, such a great and wonderful friend.
Art Seidenbaum Award
Art Seidenbaum Award, presented this year for the first time, honors the author of a first novel or first book-length collection of short fiction. Art Seidenbaum, who died last year, was Times book editor 1978-1985 and founder, in 1980, of the Times Book Prize program.
PANGS OF LOVE, by David Wong Louie (Alfred A. Knopf)
THE BOOK OF SAINTS, by Nico Ricci (Alfred A. Knopf)
HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT, by Whitney Otto (Villard/Random)
TEN SECONDS, by Louis Edwards (Graywolf Press)
WARTIME LIES, by Louis Begley (Alfred A. Knopf)