The Right Shade of Love : A romantic novel in which the lovers say: ‘You’re too white for me’ : AMERICAN KNEES, <i> By Shawn Wong (Simon & Schuster: $21; 240 pp.)</i>

<i> David Wong Louie is the author of "Pangs of Love," and 1991 winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction</i>

In his long-awaited second novel, “American Knees,” Shawn Wong pulls off the deceptively tricky task of wedding what ostensibly is a book of ideas with a tale of the heart.

In hands less competent than Wong’s, heart often loses, and the result is fiction populated by symbols, authorial mouthpieces rather than flesh-and-blood characters. Here, fortunately, the polemicist in the author gives way to the artist.

Set in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, “American Knees” tells the story of 40-year-old college affirmative action officer Raymond Ding, divorced and ever on the make, and his love affair with half-Japanese, half-Irish Aurora Crane, 11 years his junior. The ultimate Asian American hunk meets his match: He’s tall, handsome, sexy, but also smart (Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” make cameos) and blessed with the best political, cultural sensitivities; she’s a disarmingly brainy beauty, slender, long-legged, big-breasted (which describes most of the women in Raymond’s acquaintance) and has a tongue poised for quick insights or snappy rejoinders. They belong together.


But within 16 pages and two years of their meeting, they call it quits. How is that possible?

Simply put, Raymond insists that Aurora needs an identity adjustment: “You’re never seen as white. . . . So why live that lie?” She is “not Asian enough or not culturally sensitive enough” for his tastes.

Raymond tries to fix her. Part evangelist, part professor, part make-over artist, he hammers the Asian American discourse into her consciousness, hoping for her conversion: 19th-Century Chinese railroad workers, interracial dating, Hollywood representations of Asian men, biracialism and more.

“The first few months with Raymond had been like being in a college ethnic studies class. . . . Sometimes he lectured in bed about institutionalized racism,” she observes.

Raymond’s enterprise is patently absurd. His chest-thumping, politically correct agenda, his self-congratulatory smarts and high earnestness--ethnic pride aside--are a smoke screen he hides behind. His verbal bullying, meant to bring her into his world, only puts distance between the lovers.

Tellingly, the first time they have sex is a talkathon, mutual masturbation on the telephone: There’s the illusion of intimacy, but obviously they’re apart.


When they actually make love, he tells “sex stories,” and these, like the phone sex, (“Your panties are a warm breeze that comes up suddenly, then vanishes, exposing a humid scented moss”), are to this reader so bloodless and nonerotic that one suspects the author must have done this on purpose: Raymond’s stuck in his head and won’t surrender to the discourse of the heart and groin. He’s not about arousing passion, but subverting it.

It’s been 16 years since the publication of Wong’s fine first novel, “Homebase.” During the drought the author must have stored up plenty of things to say, which might explain why the characters in “American Knees” talk so much.

Too often, they unload speeches on each other in that arch, stylized way of the stage. They lecture, debate and muse in longish blocks of text. And everybody’s improbably engaged in the same conversation, to the exclusion of other topics. Even Aurora’s Irish father gets into the act: “[My daughters] come home with this ethnic identity crap and jokes about white guys.”

But what they say has needed saying for a long time. “American Knees” is a welcome antidote to the mawkish popular fiction passed off as Asian American nowadays.

Wong overturns the racial stereotypes perpetrated against Asians in this country, and he does so with humor to spare: Raymond isn’t sexually ambiguous or ambivalent; he isn’t a model minority geek (“cheap haircut with greasy bangs falling across the eyebrows, squarish gold-rimmed glasses”); his Chinese father isn’t evil or indifferent; these Asians crack jokes, have sex, talk dirty, philander. No one has more eloquently or joyfully asserted our belonging.

The excessive talking also has a purpose. It’s noise that distracts Raymond from his true desires. Witness: Raymond falls for a Vietnamese co-worker, Betty, the “100% Asian” he’s wanted Aurora to be. You figure this should satisfy him. She’s the consummate Asian American, far from her homeland, victimized by two nations, secure in her identity and beautiful too. But things never heat up. He’s supposedly in love with her, but you never quite believe it. Neither does Betty.


That Raymond doesn’t connect with Betty has to do with the other “100% Asian women” in his life: his former wife Darleen and, more important, his mother Helen, a “Chinese from China,” who died when he was still young. In the days after her death, Raymond’s father asks the boy to share his lonely bed, “There’s too much space there.” Her death has also left an enormous “space” in Raymond’s life, which as an adult he tries to fill with lovers.

More than lust or ideals, Raymond is driven by “hidden grief” and a sense that something is missing. He marries into Darleen’s big Chinese family, an act of filial obligation to his mother. But the traditional Chinese family structure, the very thing he sought, suffocates him. Similarly, he drags Aurora into the same emotional morass--a dutiful Chinese son, in his conception of that category, doesn’t date non-Asians.

But Betty exposes how bogus Raymond’s categories are. When she says, “We don’t share the same history”, she’s telling Raymond that he isn’t Asian enough. That is to say, he’s culturally and historically linked to Aurora, in ways that he and Betty can never connect, no matter how diligently he studies her or her past--no rhetoric adequately reveals the stories logged in the body. Betty and his ex-wife both fall under the broad rubric “one hundred percent Asian,” but the ways in which they read Asian to Raymond--Betty’s immigrant experience, his ex’s tradition-bound Chinese family--are ridiculous as stand-ins for the lost mother, whose own Asianess is in her being his mother. By novel’s end, Raymond not only must recognize that these women are individuals, not academic abstractions, but that his concept of what it is to be a dutiful son has to expand. Love is not obligation.