Southern Cross the Dog
Bill Cheng’s debut novel is set in the Deep South of the United States during and after the time of the great Mississippi flood of 1927. The book is dedicated to many of Cheng’s blues heroes, including Son House, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and the man who went down to the crossroads and made a pact with the devil himself, Robert Johnson. The blues does more than influence the novel. It is as if the writer has sat down with his musical idols and played with them, with words as his instrument. He has taken the sad notes and deep refrains of loss and pain, staples of the musical genre, mashed them into a wild, sultry and violent storm and poured forth an engaging story.
The protagonist of Southern Cross the Dog is Robert Lee Chatham, a boy separated from his family when their ramshackle home is washed away in a flood. Robert has no idea if they are alive or dead. Left to manage alone, he initially survives by working as a roustabout in a brothel that goes by the name of ‘Hotel Beau-Miel’. Robert scrubs and cleans and deals with the slops, and is eventually bedded by one of the working girls, who comes to an unfortunate and early end when the brothel is set ablaze.
The story moves back and forward between 1927 and the early 1940s as the reader pursues, across the South, Robert and a range of eccentrics, desperados and downright dangerous characters whose paths he crosses. This cast of misfits include Eli Cutter, a Blues man himself, a white-hot piano player, recently released from prison with the help of a musical entrepreneur, who hopes to make himself a fortune by taking Eli on the road. (This narrative thread could have been lifted from the Cohen brothers’, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?). At another fork in the narrative, Robert is captured by a wild bunch of good ol’ boys. They hold him captive in terrible conditions as they go about the business of killing and skinning just about any animal that moves.
The novel has both won praise and caused some controversy in the U.S. Many of the characters in the novel are black, including Robert, while William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor own the terrain of the prose, both geographic and cultural. And to enhance the heady mood of the story, it is laced with the steaminess of Tennessee Williams. (Reviews of the novel have added the ‘style’ of Cormac McCarthy to this list of influences, indicative of the laziness of the reviewers rather than any distinct stylistic influence). The controversy surrounding the novel centres on the fact that Bill Cheng is a twenty-nine year-old writing graduate from Queens, New York, who appears satisfied to (perhaps) cheekily admit that he had not set a foot anywhere near the South until after he’d finished the novel. The point has also arisen that he is not African-American. (He’s Chinese-American). This combined lack of apparent authenticity, of not experiencing the Southern Gothic first hand or being ethnically aligned with many of his characters has drawn mild criticism, generally along the line that the language of Southern Cross while successfully mimicking a regional canon falls short in delivering a coherent story.
I disagree. Rather than parrot the elders of the Southern literary tradition, Cheng channels the atmosphere and poetry of the musicians he obviously adores. And he does it with great success. Scenes and images within the book are truly mesmerising. I read some passages several times, struck by Cheng’s power, originality and love of words. He doesn’t do so at the expense of the characters or of the odyssey by which Robert Chatham is captured. If Southern Cross the Dog is ever made into a movie, it will be accompanied by one hell of a soundtrack.