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Alan Chin is making me fat.
First it’s his native Hawaiian boy, Songaree, cooking up a storm in Island Song, and now it’s Asian-American Seaman Andrew Waters performing culinary miracles for the crew of his ship, the Pilgrim as well as for a POW camp commander in Chin’s WWII “don’t ask, don’t tell” book, The Lonely War.
Consider Waters’ first menu for his shipmates:
A silver platter of appetizers – shrimp dumplings with a soy based dipping sauce and steamed pork buns – and a frosty pitcher of unsweetened tea sat in the center of the table … Grady hurried through the hatchway balancing a tray crammed with bowls, a soup tureen and a breadbasket. The fragrance of turtle soup suffused the cabin … Thick and meaty, the soup’s richness permeated his mouth and warmed his stomach. The baguettes were crusty on the outside and soft and fragrant on the inside … Ten minutes later, Grady served the main course of roast duck in a red curry sauce resting beside sautéed vegetables,with a side dish of stir-fried noodles topped with chunks of fresh lobster,cooked sweet and gingery.
Now is that fair to my waistline, Alan?
But The Lonely War has far more going for it than great descriptions of meals. Seaman Waters deals with his share of prejudice, both as an Asian-American serving his country post-Pearl Harbor and as a man in love with his superior officer, Nathan Mitchell. His Buddhist leanings are further tested when the Pilgrim is sunk in battle and the survivors are forced ashore to the evil Commandant Hiraku Tottori’s POW camp.
Chin manages the plot twists and turns deftly, rarely succumbing to the tried-and-true war story stereotypes we’ve come to know. Some, like the greasy ship’s cook, Cocoa, slip through, but in turn we’re rewarded with a rich, full character like Tottori, who has a private vulnerability and nobility Chin allows us – and Waters – to experience. And Waters himself is an interesting contradiction with a number of faults and failings that humanize an otherwise frustratingly self-actualized character, especially near the end of the book.
I’m not sure I buy the acceptance Waters and Mitchell get from the majority of the crew as gay men in the Navy, especially canoodling between an enlisted man and a superior officer. Captains have spies everywhere, and it’d be difficult to hide even the most sub rosa affair, but not having ever been aboard anything other than a gay cruise ship where such affairs begin and end in the fitness center steam room. I may be totally wrong.
But if you can ride with this, you’ll be sitting down to a rich, heady feast of a book, full of tension and drama as well as two – count ‘em – two grand love stories. Fill your plates, grab your forks and dig in.
And if Chin ever gives up writing, he can always get a spot on the Food Network.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler